“This doesn’t prove anything!” she said, though she’d hardly glanced at it. “And how do you know so bloody much about us?”
“I told you, my grandfather—”
She slapped the letter out of my hands. “I don’t want to hear another word of that rubbish!” Apparently, I’d touched a nerve. She went quiet for a moment, face pinched with frustration, as if she were deciding how best to dispose of my body once she’d followed through on her threats. Before she could decide, though, shouts erupted from the other end of the alley. We turned to see the men from the pub running toward us, armed with wooden clubs and farm implements.
“What this? What’ve you done?”
“You’re not the only person who wants to kill me!”
She took the knife from my throat and held it at my side instead, then grabbed me by the collar. “You are now my prisoner. Do exactly as I say or you’ll regret it!”
I made no argument. I didn’t know if my chances were any better in the hands of this unbalanced girl than with that slavering mob of club-wielding drunks, but at least with her I figured I had a shot at getting some answers.
She shoved me and we were off and running down a connecting alley. Halfway to the end she darted to one side and pulled me after her, both of us ducking under a line of sheets and hopping a chicken-wire fence into the yard of a little cottage.
“In here,” she whispered and, looking around to make sure we hadn’t been seen, pushed me through a door into a cramped hovel that reeked of peat smoke.
There was no one inside save an old dog asleep on a sofa. He opened one eye to look at us, didn’t think much of what he saw, and went back to sleep. We darted to a window that looked out on the street and flattened ourselves against the wall next to it. We stood there listening, the girl careful to keep a hand on my arm and her knife at my side.
A minute passed. The men’s voices seemed to fade and then return; it was hard to tell where they were. My eyes drifted around the little room. It seemed excessively rustic, even for Cairnholm. Tilting in a corner was a stack of hand-woven baskets. A chair upholstered in burlap stood before a giant coal-fired cooking range cast from iron. Hung on the wall opposite us was a calendar, and though it was too dim to read from where we stood, just looking at it sparked a bizarre thought.
“What year is it?”
The girl told me to shut up.
“I’m serious,” I whispered.
She regarded me strangely for a moment. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but go have a look for yourself,” she said, pushing me toward the calendar.
The top half was a black-and-white photo of a tropical scene, full-bodied girls with enormous bangs and vintage-looking swimsuits smiling on a beach. Printed above the seam was “September 1940.” The first and second days of the month had been crossed out.
A detached numbness spread over me. I considered all the strange things I’d seen that morning: the bizarre and sudden change in the weather; the island I thought I’d known, now populated by strangers; how the style of everything around me looked old but the things themselves were new. It could all be explained by the calendar on the wall.
September 3, 1940. But how?
And then one of the last things my grandfather said came to me. On the other side of the old man’s grave. It was something I’d never been able to figure out. There was a time I’d wondered if he’d meant ghosts—that since all the children he’d known here were dead, I’d have to go to the other side of the grave to find them—but that was too poetic. My grandfather was literal minded, not a man who traded in metaphor or suggestion. He’d given me straightforward directions that he simply hadn’t had time to explain: “The Old Man,” I realized, was what the locals called the bog boy, and his grave was the cairn. And earlier today I had gone inside it and come out someplace else: September third, 1940.
All this occurred to me in the time it took for the room to turn upside down and my knees to go out from under me, and for everything to fade into pulsing, velvety black.
* * *
I awoke on the floor with my hands tied to the cooking range. The girl was pacing nervously and appeared to be having an animated conversation with herself. I kept my eyes most of the way shut and listened.
“He must be a wight,” she was saying. “Why else would he have been snooping around the old house like a burglar?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” someone else said, “but neither, it seems, does he.” So she wasn’t talking to herself, after all—though from where I was lying, I couldn’t see the young man who’d spoken. “You say he didn’t even realize he was in a loop?”
“See for yourself,” she said, gesturing toward me. “Can you imagine any relative of Abe’s being so perfectly clueless?”
“Can you imagine a wight?” said the young man. I turned my head slightly, scanning the room, but still I didn’t see him.
“I can imagine a wight faking it,” the girl replied.
The dog, awake now, trotted over and began to lick my face. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to ignore it, but the tongue bath he gave me was so slobbery and gross that I finally had to sit up just to rescue myself.
“Well, look who’s up!” the girl said. She clapped her hands, giving me a sarcastic round of applause. “That was quite the performance you gave earlier. I particularly enjoyed the fainting. I’m sure the theater lost a fine actor when you chose to devote yourself instead to murder and cannibalism.”
I opened my mouth to protest my innocence—and stopped when I noticed a cup floating toward me.
“Have some water,” the young man said. “Can’t have you dying before we get you back to the headmistress, now can we?”
His voice seemed to come from the empty air. I reached for the cup, and as my pinky brushed an unseen hand, I nearly dropped it.
“He’s clumsy,” the young man said.
“You’re invisible,” I replied dumbly.
“Indeed. Millard Nullings, at your service.”
“Don’t tell him your name!” the girl cried.
“And this is Emma,” he continued. “She’s a bit paranoid, as I’m sure you’ve gathered.”
Emma glared at him—or at the space I imagined him to occupy—but said nothing. The cup shook in my hand. I began another fumbling attempt to explain myself but was interrupted by angry voices from outside the window.