Mesmerized, I lost all track of time. We stayed there for what seemed like hours, though it was probably only a few minutes. Then I felt Emma nudge me, and we retreated through the doorway and up the ladder, and when we broke the surface again the first thing I saw was the great bold stripe of the Milky Way painted across the heavens, and it occurred to me that together the fish and the stars formed a complete system, coincident parts of some ancient and mysterious whole.
We pulled ourselves onto the hull and took off our masks. For a while we just sat like that, half-submerged, thighs touching, speechless.
“What were those?” I said finally.
“We call them flashlight fish.”
“I’ve never seen one before.”
“Most people never do,” she said. “They hide.”
Emma smiled. “They are that, too.” And then her hand crept onto my knee, and I let it stay there because it felt warm and good in the cool water. I listened for the voice in my head telling me not to kiss her, but it had gone silent.
And then we were kissing. The profoundness of our lips touching and our tongues pressing and my hand cupping her perfect white cheek barred any thoughts of right or wrong or any memory of why I had followed her there in the first place. We were kissing and kissing and then suddenly it was over. As she pulled away I followed her face with mine. She put a hand on my chest, at once gentle and firm. “I need to breathe, dummy.”
I laughed. “Okay.”
She took my hands and looked at me, and I looked back. It was almost more intense than kissing, the just looking. And then she said, “You should stay.”
“Stay,” I repeated.
“Here. With us.”
The reality of her words filtered through, and the tingly magic of what had just happened between us numbed out.
“I want to, but I don’t think I can.”
I considered the idea. The sun, the feasts, the friends … and the sameness, the perfect identical days. You can get sick of anything if you have too much of it, like all the petty luxuries my mother bought and quickly grew bored with.
But Emma. There was Emma. Maybe it wasn’t so strange, what we could have. Maybe I could stay for a while and love her and then go home. But no. By the time I wanted to leave, it would be too late. She was a siren. I had to be strong.
“It’s him you want, not me. I can’t be him for you.”
She looked away, stung. “That isn’t why you should stay. You belong here, Jacob.”
“I don’t. I’m not like you.”
“Yes, you are,” she insisted.
“I’m not. I’m common, just like my grandfather.”
Emma shook her head. “Is that really what you think?”
“If I could do something spectacular like you, don’t you think I would’ve noticed by now?”
“I’m not meant to tell you this,” she said, “but common people can’t pass through time loops.”
I considered this for a moment, but couldn’t make sense of it. “There’s nothing peculiar about me. I’m the most average person you’ll ever meet.”
“I doubt that very much,” she replied. “Abe had a rare and peculiar talent, something almost no one else could do.”
And then she met my eyes and said, “He could see the monsters.”
He could see the monsters. The moment she said it, all the horrors I thought I’d put behind me came flooding back. They were real. They were real and they’d killed my grandfather.
“I can see them, too,” I told her, whispering it like a secret shame.
Her eyes welled and she embraced me. “I knew there was something peculiar about you,” she said. “And I mean that as the highest compliment.”
I’d always known I was strange. I never dreamed I was peculiar. But if I could see things almost no one else could, it explained why Ricky hadn’t seen anything in the woods the night my grandfather was killed. It explained why everyone thought I was crazy. I wasn’t crazy or seeing things or having a stress reaction; the panicky twist in my gut whenever they were close—that and the awful sight of them—that was my gift.
“And you can’t see them at all?” I asked her.
“Only their shadows, which is why they hunt mainly at night.”
“What’s stopping them from coming after you right now?” I asked, then corrected myself. “All of us, I mean.”
She turned serious. “They don’t know where to find us. That and they can’t enter loops. So we’re safe on the island—but we can’t leave.”
“But Victor did.”
She nodded sadly. “He said he was going mad here. Said he couldn’t stand it any longer. Poor Bronwyn. My Abe left, too, but at least he wasn’t murdered by hollows.”
I forced myself to look at her. “I’m really sorry to have to tell you this …”
“What? Oh no.”
“They convinced me it was wild animals. But if what you’re saying is true, my grandfather was murdered by them, too. The first and only time I saw one was the night he died.”
She hugged her knees to her chest and closed her eyes. I slid my arm around her, and she tilted her head against mine.
“I knew they’d get him eventually,” she whispered. “He promised me he’d be safe in America. That he could protect himself. But we’re never safe—none of us—not really.”
We sat talking on the wrecked ship until the moon got low and the water lapped at our throats and Emma began to shiver. Then we linked hands and waded back to the canoe. Paddling toward the beach, we heard voices calling our names, and then we came around a rock and saw Hugh and Fiona waving at us on the shore. Even from a distance, it was clear something was wrong.
We tied the canoe and ran to meet them. Hugh was out of breath, bees darting around him in a state of agitation. “Something’s happened! You’ve got to come back with us!”
There was no time to argue. Emma pulled her clothes over her swimsuit and I tripped into my pants, all gritty with sand. Hugh regarded me uncertainly. “Not him, though,” he said. “This is serious.”
“No, Hugh,” Emma said. “The Bird was right. He’s one of us.”
He gaped at her, then at me. “You told him?!”