“You make a nice rousing speech,” said Millard, “and I hate to spoil it, but for all we know, Miss Peregrine is the only ymbryne left uncaptured. Recall what Miss Avocet told us: the wights have been raiding loops and abducting ymbrynes for weeks now. Which means that even if we could find a loop, there’d be no way of knowing whether it still had its ymbryne—or was occupied instead by our enemies. We can’t simply go knocking on loop doors and hoping they aren’t full of wights.”
“Or surrounded by half-starved hollows,” Enoch said.
“We won’t have to hope,” Emma said, then smiled in my direction. “Jacob will tell us.”
My entire body went cold. “Me?”
“You can sense hollows from a distance, can’t you?” said Emma. “In addition to seeing them?”
“When they’re close, it kind of feels like I’m going to puke,” I admitted.
“How close do they have to be?” asked Millard. “If it’s only a few meters, that still puts us within devouring range. We’d need you to sense them from much farther away.”
“I haven’t exactly tested it,” I said. “This is all so new to me.”
I’d only ever been exposed to Dr. Golan’s hollow, Malthus—the creature who’d killed my grandfather, then nearly drowned me in Cairnholm’s bog. How far away had he been when I’d first felt him stalking me, lurking outside my house in Englewood? It was impossible to know.
“Regardless, your talent can be developed,” said Millard. “Peculiarities are a bit like muscles—the more you exercise them, the bigger they grow.”
“This is madness!” Enoch said. “Are you all really so desperate that you’d stake everything on him? Why, he’s just a boy—a soft-bellied normal who knows next to nothing of our world!”
“He isn’t normal,” Emma said, grimacing as if this were the direst insult. “He’s one of us!”
“Stuff and rubbish!” yelled Enoch. “Just because there’s a dash of peculiar blood in his veins doesn’t make him my brother. And it certainly doesn’t make him my protector! We don’t know what he’s capable of—he probably wouldn’t know the difference between a hollow at fifty meters and gas pains!”
“He killed one of them, didn’t he?” said Bronwyn. “Stabbed it through the eyes with a pair of sheep shears! When’s the last time you heard of a peculiar so young doing anything like that?”
“Not since Abe,” Hugh said, and at the mention of his name a reverent hush fell over the children.
“I heard he once killed one with his bare hands,” said Bronwyn.
“I heard he killed one with a knitting needle and a length of twine,” said Horace. “In fact, I dreamed it, so I’m certain he did.”
“Half of those stories are just tall tales, and they get taller with every year that passes,” said Enoch. “The Abraham Portman I knew never did a single thing to help us.”
“He was a great peculiar!” said Bronwyn. “He fought bravely and killed scores of hollows for our cause!”
“And then he ran off and left us to hide in that house like refugees while he galavanted around America, playing hero!”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Emma said, flushing with anger. “There was a lot more to it than that.”
Enoch shrugged. “Anyway, that’s all beside the point,” he said. “Whatever you thought of Abe, this boy isn’t him.”
In that moment I hated Enoch, and yet I couldn’t blame him for his doubts about me. How could the others, so sure and seasoned in their abilities, put so much faith in mine—in something I was only beginning to understand and had known I was capable of for only a few days? Whose grandson I was seemed irrelevant. I simply didn’t know what I was doing.
“You’re right, I’m not my grandfather,” I said. “I’m just a kid from Florida. I probably got lucky when I killed that hollow.”
“Nonsense,” said Emma. “You’ll be every bit the hollow-slayer Abe was, one day.”
“One day soon, let’s hope,” said Hugh.
“It’s your destiny,” said Horace, and the way he said it made me think he knew something I didn’t.
“And even if it ain’t,” said Hugh, clapping his hand on my back, “you’re all we’ve got, mate.”
“If that’s true, bird help us all,” said Enoch.
My head was spinning. The weight of their expectations threatened to crush me. I stood, unsteady, and moved toward the cave exit. “I need some air,” I said, pushing past Enoch.
“Jacob, wait!” cried Emma. “The balloons!”
But they were long gone.
“Let him go,” Enoch grumbled. “If we’re lucky, he’ll swim back to America.”
* * *
Walking down to the water’s edge, I tried to picture myself the way my new friends saw me, or wanted to: not as Jacob, the kid who once broke his ankle running after an ice cream truck, or who reluctantly and at the behest of his dad tried and failed three times to get onto his school’s noncompetitive track team, but as Jacob, inspector of shadows, miraculous interpreter of squirmy gut feelings, seer and slayer of real and actual monsters—and all that might stand between life and death for our merry band of peculiars.
How could I ever live up to my grandfather’s legacy?
I climbed a stack of rocks at the water’s edge and stood there, hoping the steady breeze would dry my damp clothes, and in the dying light I watched the sea, a canvas of shifting grays, melded and darkening. In the distance a light glinted every so often. It was Cairnholm’s lighthouse, flashing its hello and last goodbye.
My mind drifted. I lapsed into a waking dream.
I see a man. He is of middle age, cloaked in excremental mud, crabbing slowly along the knife tip of a cliff, his thin hair uncombed and hanging wet across his face. Wind whips his thin jacket like a sail. He stops, drops to his elbows. Slips them into divots he’d made weeks before, when he was scouting these coves for mating terns and shearwaters’ nests. He raises a pair of binoculars to his eyes but aims them low, below the nests, at a thin crescent of beach where the swelling tide collects things and heaves them up: driftwood and seaweed, shards of smashed boats—and sometimes, the locals say, bodies.