Miss peregrines home for.., p.13
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.13

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 
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  “Does Britain still rule the world?”

  “Uh … not exactly.”

  They seemed disappointed. Sensing an opportunity, Miss Peregrine said, “You see, children? The future isn’t so grand after all. Nothing wrong with the good old here and now!” I got the feeling this was something she often tried to impress upon them, with little success. But it got me wondering: Just how long had they been here, in the “good old here and now?”

  “Do you mind if I ask how old you all are?” I said.

  “I’m eighty-three,” said Horace.

  Olive raised her hand excitedly. “I’ll be seventy-five and a half next week!” I wondered how they kept track of the months and years if the days never changed.

  “I’m either one hundred seventeen or one hundred eighteen,” said a heavy-lidded boy named Enoch. He looked no more than thirteen. “I lived in another loop before this one,” he explained.

  “I’m nearly eighty-seven,” said Millard with his mouth full of goose drippings, and as he spoke a half-chewed mass quavered in his invisible jaw for all to see. There were groans as people covered their eyes and looked away.

  Then it was my turn. I was sixteen, I told them. I saw a few kids’ eyes widen. Olive laughed in surprise. It was strange to them that I should be so young, but what was strange to me was how young they seemed. I knew plenty of eighty-year-olds in Florida, and these kids acted nothing like them. It was as if the constance of their lives here, the unvarying days—this perpetual deathless summer—had arrested their emotions as well as their bodies, sealing them in their youth like Peter Pan and his Lost Boys.

  A sudden boom sounded from outside, the second one this evening, but louder and closer than the first, rattling silverware and plates.

  “Hurry up and finish, everyone!” Miss Peregrine sang out, and no sooner had she said it than another concussion jolted the house, throwing a framed picture off the wall behind me.

  “What is that?” I said.

  “It’s those damned Jerries again!” growled Olive, thumping her little fist on the table, clearly in imitation of some ill-tempered adult. Then I heard what sounded like a buzzer going off somewhere far away, and suddenly it occurred to me what was happening. This was the night of September third, 1940, and in a little while a bomb was going to fall from the sky and blow a giant hole in the house. The buzzer was an air-raid siren, sounding from the ridge.

  “We have to get out of here,” I said, panic rising in my throat. “We have to go before the bomb hits!”

  “He doesn’t know!” giggled Olive. “He thinks we’re going to die!”

  “It’s only the changeover,” said Millard with a shrug of his smoking jacket. “No reason to get your knickers in a twist.”

  “This happens every night?”

  Miss Peregrine nodded. “Every single evening,” she said. Somehow, though, I was not reassured.

  “May we go outside and show Jacob?” said Hugh.

  “Yes, may we?” Claire begged, suddenly enthused after twenty minutes of sulking. “The changeover is ever so beautiful!”

  Miss Peregrine demurred, pointing out that they hadn’t yet finished their dinners, but the children pleaded with her until she relented. “All right, so long as you all wear your masks,” she said.

  The children burst out of their seats and ran from the room, leaving poor Olive behind until someone took pity and came to unbelt her from her chair. I ran after them through the house into the wood-paneled foyer, where they each grabbed something from a cabinet before bounding out the door. Miss Peregrine gave me one, too, and I stood turning it over in my hands. It looked like a sagging face of black rubber, with wide glass portholes like eyes that were frozen in shock, and a droopy snout that ended in a perforated canister.

  “Go ahead,” said Miss Peregrine. “Put it on.” Then I realized what it was: a gas mask.

  I strapped it over my face and followed her out onto the lawn, where the children stood scattered like chess pieces on an unmarked board, anonymous behind their upturned masks, watching billows of black smoke roll across the sky. Treetops burned in the hazy distance. The drone of unseen airplanes seemed to come from everywhere.

  Now and then came a muffled blast I could feel in my chest like the thump of a second heart, followed by waves of broiling heat, like someone opening and closing an oven right in front of me. I ducked at each concussion, but the kids never so much as flinched. Instead they sang, their lyrics timed perfectly to the rhythm of the bombs.

  Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, RUN!

  Bang, bang, BANG goes the farmer’s gun

  He’ll get by without his rabbit pie, so

  Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, RUN!

  Bright tracer bullets scored the heavens just as the song ended. The kids applauded like onlookers at a fireworks display, violent slashes of color reflected in their masks. This nightly assault had become such a regular part of their lives that they’d ceased to think of it as something terrifying—in fact, the photograph I’d seen of it in Miss Peregrine’s album had been labeled Our beautiful display. And in its own morbid way, I suppose it was.

  It began to drizzle, as if all that flying metal had riven holes in the clouds. The concussions came less frequently. The attack seemed to be ending.

  The children started to leave. I thought we were going back inside, but they passed the front door and headed for another part of the yard.

  “Where are we going?” I asked two masked kids.

  They said nothing, but seeming to sense my anxiety, they took me gently by the hands and led me along with the others. We rounded the house to the back corner, where everyone was gathering around a giant topiary. This one wasn’t a mythical creature, though, but a man reposing in the grass, one arm supporting him, the other pointing to the sky. It took a moment before I realized that it was a leafy replica of Michelangelo’s fresco of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. Considering that it was made from bushes, it was really impressive. You could almost make out the placid expression on Adam’s face, which had two blooming gardenias for eyes.

  I saw the wild-haired girl standing nearby. She wore a flower-print dress that had been patched so many times it almost looked like a quilt. I went over to her and, pointing to Adam, said, “Did you make this?”

  The girl nodded.

  “How?”

  She bent down and held one of her palms above the grass. A few seconds later, a hand-shaped section of blades wriggled and stretched and grew until they were brushing the bottom of her palm.

  “That,” I said, “is crazy.” Clearly, I was not at my most articulate.

  Someone shushed me. The children were all standing silently with their necks craned, pointing at a section of sky. I looked up but could see only clouds of smoke, the flickering orange of fires reflected against them.

  Then I heard a single airplane engine cut through the rest. It was close, and getting closer. Panic flooded me. This is the night they were killed. Not just the night, but the moment. Could it be, I wondered, that these children died every evening only to be resurrected by the loop, like some Sisyphean suicide cult, condemned to be blown up and stitched back together for eternity?

  Something small and gray parted the clouds and came hurtling toward us. A rock, I thought, but rocks don’t whistle as they fall.

  Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run. I would’ve but now there was no time; all I could do was scream and dive to the ground for cover. But there was no cover, so I hit the grass and threw my arms over my head as if somehow that would keep it attached to my body.

  I clenched my jaw and shut my eyes and held my breath, but instead of the deafening blast I was bracing for, everything went completely, profoundly quiet. Suddenly there were no growling engines, no whistling bombs, no pops of distant guns. It was as if someone had muted the world.

  Was I dead?

  I uncovered my head and slowly looked behind me. The wind-bent boughs of trees were frozen in place. The sky was a photograph of arrested flam
es licking a cloud bank. Drops of rain hung suspended before my eyes. And in the middle of the circle of children, like the object of some arcane ritual, there hovered a bomb, its downward-facing tip seemingly balanced on Adam’s outstretched finger.

  Then, like a movie that burns in the projector while you’re watching it, a bloom of hot and perfect whiteness spread out before me and swallowed everything.

  * * *

  The first thing I heard when I could hear again was laughter. Then the white faded away and I saw that we were all arranged around Adam just as we had been before, but now the bomb was gone and the night was quiet and the only light in the cloudless sky was a full moon. Miss Peregrine appeared above me and held out her hand. I took it, stumbling to my feet in a daze.

  “Please accept my apologies,” she said. “I should have better prepared you.” She couldn’t hide her smile, though, and neither could the other kids as they stripped off their masks. I was pretty sure I’d just been hazed.

  I felt lightheaded and out-of-sorts. “I should probably head home for the night,” I said to Miss Peregrine. “My dad’ll worry.” Then I added quickly, “I can go home, right?”

  “Of course you can,” she replied, and in a loud voice asked for a volunteer to escort me back to the cairn. To my surprise, Emma stepped forward. Miss Peregrine seemed pleased.

  “Are you sure about her?” I whispered to the headmistress. “A few hours ago she was ready to slit my throat.”

  “Miss Bloom may be hot-tempered, but she is one of my most trusted wards,” she replied. “And I think you and she may have a few things to discuss away from curious ears.”

  Five minutes later the two of us were on our way, only this time my hands weren’t tied and she wasn’t poking a knife in my spine. A few of the younger kids trailed us as far as the edge of the yard. They wanted to know whether I’d be back again tomorrow. I made vague assurances, but I could hardly wrap my mind around what was happening at this moment, much less in the future.

  We passed into the dark woods alone. When the house had disappeared behind us, Emma held out an upturned palm, flicked her wrist, and a petite ball of fire flared to life just above her fingers. She held it before her like a waiter carrying a tray, lighting the path and casting our twin shadows across the trees.

  “Have I told you how cool that is?” I said, trying to break a silence that grew more awkward by the second.

  “It isn’t cool at all,” she replied, swinging the flame close enough that I could feel its radiating heat. I dodged it and fell back a few paces.

  “I didn’t mean—I meant it’s cool that you can do that.”

  “Well, if you’d speak properly I might understand you,” she snapped, then stopped walking.

  We stood facing each other from a careful distance. “You don’t have to be afraid of me,” she said.

  “Oh yeah? How do I know you don’t think I’m some evil creature and this is just a plot to get me alone so you can finally kill me?”

  “Don’t be stupid,” she said. “You came unannounced, a stranger I didn’t recognize, and chased after me like a madman. What was I meant to think?”

  “Fine, I get it,” I said, though I didn’t really mean it.

  She dropped her eyes and began digging a little hole in the dirt with the tip of her boot. The flame in her hand changed color, fading from orange to a cool indigo. “It’s not true, what I said. I did recognize you.” She looked up at me. “You look so much like him.”

  “People tell me that sometimes.”

  “I’m sorry I said all those terrible things earlier. I didn’t want to believe you—that you were who you said. I knew what it would mean.”

  “It’s okay,” I replied. “When I was growing up, I wanted so much to meet all of you. Now that it’s finally happening …” I shook my head. “I’m just sorry it has to be because of this.”

  And then she rushed at me and threw her arms around my neck, the flame in her hand snuffing out just before she touched me, her skin hot where she’d held it. We stood like that in the darkness for a while, me and this teenaged old woman, this rather beautiful girl who had loved my grandfather when he was the age I am now. There was nothing I could do but put my arms around her, too, so I did, and after a while I guess we were both crying.

  I heard her take a deep breath in the dark, and then she broke away. The fire flared back to life in her hand.

  “Sorry about that,” she said. “I’m not usually so …”

  “Don’t worry about it.”

  “We should be getting on.”

  “Lead the way,” I said.

  We walked through the woods in a comfortable silence. When we came to the bog she said, “Step only where I step,” and I did, planting my feet in her prints. Bog gases flared up in green pyres in the distance, as if in sympathy with Emma’s light.

  We reached the cairn and ducked inside, shuffling in single-file to the rear chamber and then out again to a world shrouded in mist. She guided me back to the path, and when we reached it she laced her fingers through mine and squeezed. We were quiet for a moment. Then she turned and went back, the fog swallowing her so quickly that for a moment I wondered if she’d been there at all.

  * * *

  Returning to town, I half-expected to find horse-drawn wagons roaming the streets. Instead I was welcomed by the hum of generators and the glow of TV screens behind cottage windows. I was home, such as it was.

  Kev was manning the bar again and raised a glass in my direction as I came in. None of the men in the pub offered to lynch me. All seemed right with the world.

  I went upstairs to find Dad asleep in front of his laptop at our little table. When I shut the door he woke with a start.

  “Hi! Hey! You’re out late. Or are you? What time is it?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “Before nine I think. The gennies are still on.”

  He stretched and rubbed his eyes. “What’d you do today? I was hoping I’d see you for dinner.”

  “Just explored the old house some more.”

  “Find anything good?”

  “Uh … not really,” I said, realizing that I probably should’ve bothered to concoct a more elaborate cover story.

  He looked at me strangely. “Where’d you get those?”

  “Get what?”

  “Your clothes,” he said.

  I looked down and realized I’d completely forgotten about the tweed-pants-and-suspenders outfit I was wearing. “I found them in the house,” I said, because I didn’t have time to think of a less weird answer. “Aren’t they cool?”

  He grimaced. “You put on clothes that you found? Jake, that’s unsanitary. And what happened to your jeans and jacket?”

  I needed to change the subject. “They got super dirty, so I, uh …” I trailed off, making a point of noticing the document on his computer screen. “Whoa, is that your book? How’s it coming?”

  He slapped the laptop shut. “My book isn’t the issue right now. What’s important is our time here be therapeutic for you. I’m not sure that spending your days alone in that old house is really what Dr. Golan had in mind. When he green-lighted this trip.”

  “Wow, I think that was the record,” I said.

  “What?”

  “The longest streak ever of you not mentioning my psychiatrist.” I pretended to look at a nonexistent wristwatch. “Four days, five hours, and twenty-six minutes.” I sighed. “It was good while it lasted.”

  “That man has been a great help to you,” he said. “God only knows the state you’d be in right now if we hadn’t found him.”

  “You’re right, Dad. Dr. Golan did help me. But that doesn’t mean he has to control every aspect of my life. I mean, Jesus, you and mom might as well buy me one of those little bracelets that says What Would Golan Do? That way I can ask myself before I do anything. Before I take a dump. How would Dr. Golan want me to take this dump? Should I bank it off the side or go straight down the middle? What would be the most psycholo
gically beneficial dump I could take?”

  Dad didn’t say anything for a few seconds, and when he did his voice was all low and gravelly. He told me I was going birding with him the next day whether I liked it or not. When I replied that he was sadly mistaken, he got up and went downstairs to the pub. I thought he’d be drinking or something, so I went to change out of my clown clothes, but a few minutes later he knocked on my bedroom door and said there was someone on the phone for me.

  I figured it was Mom, so I gritted my teeth and followed him downstairs to the phone booth in the far corner of the pub. He handed me the receiver and went to sit at a table. I slid the door closed.

  “Hello?”

  “I just spoke to your father,” a man said. “He sounded a little upset.”

  It was Dr. Golan.

  I wanted to say that he and my dad could both stuff it up their asses, but I knew this situation required some tact. If I pissed Golan off now it would be the end of my trip. I couldn’t leave yet, not with so much more to learn about the peculiar children. So I played along and explained what I’d been up to—all except the kids-in-a-time-loop part—and tried to make it sound like I was coming around to the idea that there was nothing special about the island or my grandfather. It was like a mini-session over the phone.

  “I hope you’re not just telling me what I want to hear,” he said. That had become his standard line. “Maybe I should come out there and check on you. I could use a little vacation. How does that sound?”

  Please be joking, I prayed.

  “I’m okay. Really,” I said.

  “Relax, Jacob, I’m only kidding, though Lord knows I could use some time away from the office. And actually, I believe you. You do sound okay. In fact, just now I told your father that probably the best thing he could do is to give you a little breathing room and let you sort things out on your own.”

  “Really?”

  “You’ve had your parents and me hovering over you for so long. At a certain point it becomes counterproductive.”

  “Well, I really appreciate that.”

  He said something else I couldn’t quite hear; there was a lot of noise on his end. “It’s hard to hear you,” I said. “Are you in a mall or something?”

 
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