“There you are,” I heard Millard say as we crawled into an alley. “Can’t resist a spectacle, can you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” replied Emma, though I could tell she was pleased with herself.
Millard led us to a horse-drawn wagon that seemed to be waiting just for us. We crawled into the back, stowing away beneath a tarpaulin. In what seemed like no time, a man walked up and climbed onto the horse, flicked its reins, and we lurched into juddering motion.
We rode in silence for a while. I could tell from the changing noises around us that we were headed out of town.
I worked up the courage to ask a question. “How’d you know about the wagon? And the planes? Are you psychic or something?”
Emma snickered. “Hardly.”
“Because it all happened yesterday,” Millard answered, “and the day before that. Isn’t that how things go in your loop?”
“He isn’t from any loop,” Emma said, keeping her voice low. “I keep telling you—he’s a damned wight.”
“I think not. A wight never would’ve let you take him alive.”
“See,” I whispered. “I’m not a whatever-you-said. I’m Jacob.”
“We’ll just see about that. Now keep quiet.” And she reached up and peeled back the tarpaulin a little, revealing a blue stripe of shifting sky.
When the last cottages had disappeared behind us, we slipped quietly from the wagon and then crossed the ridge on foot in the direction of the forest. Emma walked on one side of me, silent and brooding, never letting go of my arm, while on the other Millard hummed to himself and kicked at stones. I was nervous and baffled and queasily excited all at the same time. Part of me felt like something momentous was about to happen. The other part of me expected to wake up at any moment, to come out of this fever dream or stress episode or whatever it was and wake up with may face in a puddle of drool on the Smart Aid break room table and think, Well, that was strange, and then return to the boring old business of being me.
But I didn’t wake up. We just kept walking, the girl who could make fire with her hands and the invisible boy and me. We walked through the woods, where the path was as wide and clear as any trail in a national park, then emerged onto a broad expanse of lawn blooming with flowers and striped with neat gardens. We’d reached the house.
I gazed at it in wonder—not because it was awful, but because it was beautiful. There wasn’t a shingle out of place or a broken window. Turrets and chimneys that had slumped lazily on the house I remembered now pointed confidently toward the sky. The forest that had seemed to devour its walls stood at a respectful distance.
I was led down a flagstone path and up a set of freshly painted steps to the porch. Emma no longer seemed to regard me as the threat she once did, but before going inside she tied my hands behind me—I think just for the sake of appearances. She was playing the returning hunter, and I was the captured prey. She was about to take me inside when Millard stopped her.
“His shoes are caked with filth,” he said. “Can’t have him tracking in mud. The Bird’ll have an attack.” So, as my captors waited, I removed my shoes and socks, also stained with mud. Then Millard suggested I roll up the cuffs of my jeans so they wouldn’t drag on the carpet, and I did, and Emma grabbed me impatiently and yanked me through the door.
We proceeded down a hall I remembered being almost impassably clogged with broken furniture, past the staircase, now gleaming with varnish, curious faces peeking at me through the banisters, through the dining room. The snowfall of plaster was gone; in its place was a long wooden table ringed by chairs. It was the same house I’d explored, but everything had been restored to order. Where I remembered patinas of green mold there was wallpaper and wainscoting and cheerful shades of paint. Flowers were arranged in vases. Sagging piles of rotted wood and fabric had rebuilt themselves into fainting couches and armchairs, and sunlight streamed through high windows once so grimy I’d thought they were blacked out.
Finally we came to a small room that looked out onto the back. “Keep hold of him while I inform the headmistress,” Emma said to Millard, and I felt his hand grasp my elbow. When she left, it fell away.
“You’re not afraid I’ll eat your brain or something?” I asked him.
I turned to the window and gazed out in wonder. The yard was full of children, almost all of whom I recognized from yellowed photographs. Some lazed under shade trees; others tossed a ball and chased one another past flowerbeds exploding with color. It was exactly the paradise my grandfather had described. This was the enchanted island; these were the magical children. If I was dreaming, I no longer wanted to wake up. Or at least not anytime soon.
Out on the grassy pitch, someone kicked a ball too hard, and it flew up into a giant topiary animal and got stuck. Arranged all in a row were several of these animal bushes—fantastic creatures as tall as the house, standing guard against the woods—including a winged griffin, a rearing centaur, and a mermaid. Chasing after their lost ball, a pair of teenage boys ran to the base of the centaur, followed by a young girl. I instantly recognized her as the “levitating girl” from my grandfather’s pictures, only now she wasn’t levitating. She walked slowly, every plodding step a chore, anchored to the ground as if by some surplus of gravity.
When she reached the boys she raised her arms and they looped a rope around her waist. She slipped carefully out of her shoes and then bobbed up in the air like a balloon. It was astonishing. She rose until the rope around her waist went taut, then hovered ten feet off the ground, held by the two boys.
The girl said something and the boys nodded and began letting out the rope. She rose slowly up the side of the centaur; when she was level with its chest she reached into the branches for the ball, but it was stuck deep inside. She looked down and shook her head, and the boys reeled her down to the ground, where she stepped back into her weighted shoes and untied the rope.
“Enjoying the show?” asked Millard. I nodded silently. “There are far easier ways to retrieve that ball,” he said, “but they know they have an audience.”
Outside, a second girl was approaching the centaur. She was in her late teens and wild looking, her hair a nest well on its way to becoming dreadlocks. She bent down, took hold of the topiary’s long leafy tail and wrapped it around her arm, then closed her eyes as if concentrating. A moment later I saw the centaur’s hand move. I stared through the glass, fixed on that patch of green, thinking it must’ve been the breeze, but then each of its fingers flexed as if sensation were slowly returning to them. I watched, astonished, as the centaur’s huge arm bent at the elbow and reached into its own chest, plucked out the ball, and tossed it back to the cheering kids. As the game resumed, the wild-haired girl dropped the centaur’s tail, and it went still once more.