We rowed out through the harbor, past bobbing boats weeping rust from their seams, past juries of silent seabirds roosting atop the barnacled remains of sunken docks, past fishermen who lowered their nets to stare frozenly as we slipped by, uncertain whether we were real or imagined; a procession of waterborne ghosts, or ghosts soon to be. We were ten children and one bird in three small and unsteady boats, rowing with quiet intensity straight out to sea, the only safe harbor for miles receding quickly behind us, craggy and magical in the blue-gold light of dawn. Our goal, the rutted coast of mainland Wales, was somewhere before us but only dimly visible, an inky smudge squatting along the far horizon.
We rowed past the old lighthouse, tranquil in the distance, which only last night had been the scene of so many traumas. It was there that, with bombs exploding around us, we had nearly drowned, nearly been torn apart by bullets; that I had taken a gun and pulled its trigger and killed a man, an act still incomprehensible to me; that we had lost Miss Peregrine and got her back again—snatched from the steel jaws of a submarine—though the Miss Peregrine who was returned to us was damaged, in need of help we didn’t know how to give. She perched now on the stern of our boat, watching the sanctuary she’d created slip away, more lost with every oar stroke.
Finally we rowed past the breakwater and into the great blank open, and the glassy surface of the harbor gave way to little waves that chopped at the sides of our boats. I heard a plane threading the clouds high above us and let my oars drag, neck craning up, arrested by a vision of our little armada from such a height: this world I had chosen, and everything I had in it, and all our precious, peculiar lives, contained in three splinters of wood adrift upon the vast, unblinking eye of the sea.
Our boats slid easily through the waves, three abreast, a friendly current bearing us coastward. We rowed in shifts, taking turns at the oars to stave off exhaustion, though I felt so strong that for nearly an hour I refused to give them up. I lost myself in the rhythm of the strokes, my arms tracing long ellipses in the air as if pulling something toward me that refused to come. Hugh manned the oars opposite me, and behind him, at the bow, sat Emma, her eyes hidden beneath the brim of a sun hat, head bent toward a map spread across her knees. Every so often she’d look up from her map to consult the horizon, and just the sight of her face in the sun gave me energy I didn’t know I had.
I felt like I could row forever—until Horace shouted from one of the other boats to ask how much ocean was left between us and the mainland, and Emma squinted back toward the island and then down at her map, measuring with spread fingers, and said, somewhat doubtfully, “Seven kilometers?” But then Millard, who was also in our boat, muttered something in her ear and she frowned and turned the map sideways, and frowned again, then said, “I mean, eight and a half.” As the words left her mouth, I felt myself—and saw everyone else—wilt a little.
Eight and a half kilometers: a journey that would’ve taken an hour in the stomach-churning ferry that had brought me to Cairnholm weeks ago. A distance easily covered by an engine-powered boat of any size. One and a half kilometers less than my out-of-shape uncles ran on odd weekends for charity, and only a few more than my mother boasted she could manage during rowing-machine classes at her fancy gym. But the ferry between the island and the mainland wouldn’t start running for another thirty years, and rowing machines weren’t loaded down with passengers and luggage, nor did they require constant course corrections just to stay pointed in the right direction. Worse still, the ditch of water we were crossing was treacherous, a notorious ship-swallower: eight and a half kilometers of moody, changeable sea, its floor fanned with greening wrecks and sailors’ bones and, lurking somewhere in the fathoms-deep darkness, our enemies.
Those of us who worried about such things assumed the wights were nearby, somewhere below us in that German submarine, waiting. If they didn’t already know we’d fled the island, they’d find out soon enough. They hadn’t gone to such lengths to kidnap Miss Peregrine only to give up after one failed attempt. The warships that inched along like centipedes in the distance and the British planes that kept watch overhead made it too dangerous for the submarine to surface in broad daylight, but come nightfall, we’d be easy prey. They would come for us, and take Miss Peregrine, and sink the rest. So we rowed, our only hope that we could reach the mainland before nightfall reached us.
We rowed until our arms ached and our shoulders knotted. We rowed until the morning breeze stilled and the sun blazed down as through a magnifying glass and sweat pooled around our collars, and I realized no one had thought to bring fresh water, and that sunblock in 1940 meant standing in the shade. We rowed until the skin wore away from the ridges of our palms and we were certain we absolutely couldn’t row another stroke, but then did, and then another, and another.
“You’re sweating buckets,” Emma said. “Let me have a go at the oars before you melt away.”
Her voice startled me out of a daze. I nodded gratefully and let her switch into the oar seat, but twenty minutes later I asked for it back again. I didn’t like the thoughts that crept into my head while my body was at rest: imagined scenes of my father waking to find me gone from our rooms on Cairnholm, Emma’s baffling letter in my place; the panic that would ensue. Memory-flashes of terrible things I’d witnessed recently: a monster pulling me into its jaws; my former psychiatrist falling to his death; a man buried in a coffin of ice, torn momentarily from the next world to croak into my ear with half a throat. So I rowed despite my exhaustion and a spine that felt like it might never bend straight again and hands rubbed raw from friction, and tried to think of exactly nothing, those leaden oars both a life sentence and a life raft.
Bronwyn, seemingly inexhaustible, rowed one of the boats all by herself. Olive sat opposite but was no help; the tiny girl couldn’t pull the oars without pushing herself up into the air, where a stray gust of wind might send her flying away like a kite. So Olive shouted encouragement while Bronwyn did the work of two—or three or four, if you took into account all the suitcases and boxes weighing down their boat, stuffed with clothes and food and maps and books and a lot of less practical things, too, like several jars of pickled reptile hearts sloshing in Enoch’s duffel bag; or the blown-off front doorknob to Miss Peregrine’s house, a memento Hugh had found in the grass on our way to the boats and decided he couldn’t live without; or the bulky pillow Horace had rescued from the house’s flaming shell—it was his lucky pillow, he said, and the only thing that kept his paralyzing nightmares at bay.