Miss peregrines home for.., p.15
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.15

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 
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  It was my time’s technology and standard of living that amazed them most. Our houses were air-conditioned. They’d heard of televisions but had never seen one and were shocked to learn that my family had a talking-picture box in almost every room. Air travel was as common and affordable to us as train travel was to them. Our army fought with remote-controlled drones. We carried telephone-computers that fit in our pockets, and even though mine didn’t work here (nothing electronic seemed to), I pulled it out just to show them its sleek, mirrored enclosure.

  It was edging toward sunset when we finally started back. Emma stuck to me like glue, the back of her hand brushing mine as we walked. Passing an apple tree on the outskirts of town, she stopped to pick one, but even on tiptoes the lowest fruit was out of reach, so I did what any gentleman would do and gave her a boost, wrapping my arms around her waist and trying not to groan as I lifted, her white arm outstretched, wet hair glinting in the sun. When I let her down she gave me a little kiss on the cheek and handed me the apple.

  “Here,” she said, “you earned it.”

  “The apple or the kiss?”

  She laughed and ran off to catch up with the others. I didn’t know what to call it, what was happening between us, but I liked it. It felt silly and fragile and good. I put the apple in my pocket and ran after her.

  When we came to the bog and I said I had to go home, she pretended to pout. “At least let me escort you,” she said, so we waved goodbye to the others and crossed over to the cairn, me doing my best to memorize the placement of her feet as we went.

  When we got there I said, “Come with me to the other side a minute.”

  “I shouldn’t. I’ve got to get back or the Bird will suspect us.”

  “Suspect us of what?”

  She smiled coyly. “Of … something.”

  “Something.”

  “She’s always on the lookout for something,” she said, laughing.

  I changed tactics. “Then why don’t you come see me tomorrow instead?”

  “See you? Over there?”

  “Why not? Miss Peregrine won’t be around to watch us. You could even meet my dad. We won’t tell him who you are, obviously. And then maybe he’ll ease up a little about where I’m going and what I’m doing all the time. Me hanging out with a hot girl? That’s like his fondest dad-dream wish.”

  I thought she might smile at the hot girl thing, but instead she turned serious. “The Bird only allows us to go over for a few minutes at a time, just to keep the loop open, you know.”

  “So tell her that’s what you’re doing!”

  She sighed. “I want to. I do. But it’s a bad idea.”

  “She’s got you on a pretty short leash.”

  “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said with a scowl. “And thanks for comparing me to a dog. That was brilliant.”

  I wondered how we’d gone from flirting to fighting so quickly. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

  “It’s not that I wouldn’t like to,” she said. “I just can’t.”

  “Okay, I’ll make you a deal. Forget coming for the whole day. Just come over for a minute, right now.”

  “One minute? What can we do in one minute?”

  I grinned. “You’d be surprised.”

  “Tell me!” she said, pushing me.

  “Take your picture.”

  Her smile disappeared. “I’m not exactly at my most fetching,” she said doubtfully.

  “No, you’re great. Really.”

  “Just one minute? Promise?”

  I let her go into the cairn first. When we came out again the world was misty and cold, though thankfully the rain had stopped. I pulled out my phone and was happy to see that my theory was right. On this side of the loop, electronic things worked fine.

  “Where’s your camera?” she said, shivering. “Let’s get this over with!”

  I held up the phone and took her picture. She just shook her head, as if nothing about my bizarre world could surprise her anymore. Then she dodged away, and I had to chase her around the cairn, both of us laughing, Emma ducking out of view only to pop up again and vamp for the camera. A minute later I’d taken so many pictures that my phone had nearly run out of memory.

  Emma ran to the mouth of the cairn and blew me an air-kiss. “See you tomorrow, future boy!”

  I lifted my hand to wave goodbye, and she ducked into the stone tunnel.

  * * *

  I skipped back to town freezing and wet and grinning like an idiot. I was still blocks away from the pub when I heard a strange sound rising above the hum of generators—someone calling my name. Following the voice, I found my father standing in the street in a soggy sweater, breath pluming before him like muffler exhaust on a cold morning.

  “Jacob! I’ve been looking for you!”

  “You said be back by dinner, so here I am!”

  “Forget dinner. Come with me.”

  My father never skipped dinner. Something was most definitely amiss.

  “What’s going on?”

  “I’ll explain on the way,” he said, marching me toward the pub. Then he got a good look at me. “You’re all wet!” he exclaimed. “For God’s sake, did you lose your other jacket, too?”

  “I, uh …”

  “And why is your face red? You look sunburned.”

  Crap. A whole afternoon at the beach without sunblock. “I’m all hot from running,” I said, though the skin on my arms was pimpled from cold. “What’s happening? Did someone die, or what?”

  “No, no, no,” he said. “Well, sort of. Some sheep.”

  “What’s that got to do with us?”

  “They think it was kids who did it. Like a vandalism thing.”

  “They who? The sheep police?”

  “The farmers,” he said. “They’ve interrogated everyone under the age of twenty. Naturally, they’re pretty interested in where you’ve been all day.”

  My stomach sank. I didn’t exactly have a watertight cover story, and I raced to think of one as we approached the Priest Hole.

  Outside the pub, a small crowd was gathered around a quorum of very pissed-off-looking sheep farmers. One wore muddy coveralls and leaned threateningly on a pitchfork. Another had Worm by the collar. Worm was dressed in neon track pants and a shirt that read I LOVE IT WHEN THEY CALL ME BIG POPPA. He’d been crying, snot bubbling on his upper lip.

  A third farmer, rail-thin and wearing a knit cap, pointed at me as we approached. “Here he is!” he called out. “Where you been off to, son?”

  Dad patted me on the back. “Tell them,” he said confidently.

  I tried to sound like I had nothing to hide. “I was exploring the other side of the island. The big house.”

  Knit Cap looked confused. “Which big house?”

  “That wonky old heap in the forest,” said Pitchfork. “Only a certified idiot would set foot in there. Place is witched, and a deathtrap to boot.”

  Knit Cap squinted at me. “In the big house with who?”

  “Nobody,” I said, and saw Dad give me a funny look.

  “Bollocks! I think you was with this one,” said the man holding Worm.

  “I never killed any sheep!” cried Worm.

  “Shaddap!” the man roared.

  “Jake?” said my dad. “What about your friends?”

  “Ahh, crap, Dad.”

  Knit Cap turned and spat. “Why you little liar. I oughta belt you right here in fronta God and everybody.”

  “You stay away from him,” my father said, doing his best Stern Dad voice. Knit Cap swore and took a step toward him, and he and my dad squared off. Before either could throw a punch, a familiar voice said, “Hang on, Dennis, we’ll get this sorted,” and Martin stepped out of the crowd to wedge himself between them. “Just start by telling us whatever your boy told you,” he said to my father.

  Dad glared at me. “He said he was going to see friends on the other side.”

  “What friends?” Pitchfork demanded.
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  I could see this was only going to get uglier unless I did something drastic. Obviously, I couldn’t tell them about the children—not that they’d believe me anyway—so instead I took a calculated risk.

  “It wasn’t anybody,” I said, dropping my eyes in feigned shame. “They’re imaginary.”

  “What’d he say?”

  “He said his friends were imaginary,” my dad repeated, sounding worried.

  The farmers exchanged baffled glances.

  “See?” Worm said, a flicker of hope on his face. “Kid’s a bloody psycho! It had to be him!”

  “I never touched them,” I said, though no one was really listening.

  “It weren’t the American,” said the farmer who had Worm. He gave Worm’s shirt a wrench. “This one here, he’s got a history. Few years back I watched him kick a lamb down a cliffside. Wouldn’t of believed it if I hadn’t seen it wi’ me own eyes. After he done it I asked him why. To see if it could fly, he says. He’s a sickie, all right.”

  People muttered in disgust. Worm looked uncomfortable but didn’t dispute the story.

  “Where’s his fishmongerin’ mate?” said Pitchfork. “If this one was in on it, you can bet the other one was, too.” Someone said they’d seen Dylan by the harbor, and a posse was dispatched to collect him.

  “What about a wolf—or a wild dog?” my dad said. “My father was killed by dogs.”

  “Only dogs on Cairnholm are sheepdogs,” replied Knit Cap. “And it ain’t exactly in a sheepdog’s nature to go about killin’ sheep.”

  I wished my father would give it up and leave while the leaving was good, but he was on the case like Perry Mason. “Just how many sheep are we talking about?” he asked.

  “Five,” replied the fourth farmer, a short, sour-faced man who hadn’t spoken until then. “All mine. Killed right in their pen. Poor devils never even had a chance to run.”

  “Five sheep. How much blood do you think is in five sheep?”

  “A right tubful, I shouldn’t wonder,” said Pitchfork.

  “So wouldn’t whoever did this be covered in it?”

  The farmers looked at one another. They looked at me, and then at Worm. Then they shrugged and scratched their heads. “Reckon it coulda been foxes,” said Knit Cap.

  “A whole pack of foxes, maybe,” said Pitchfork doubtfully, “if the island’s even got that many.”

  “I still say the cuts are too clean,” said the one holding Worm. “Had to have been done with a knife.”

  “I just don’t believe it,” my dad replied.

  “Then come see for yourself,” said Knit Cap. So as the crowd began to disperse, a small group of us followed the farmers out to the scene of the crime. We trudged over a low rise, through a nearby field, to a little brown shed with a rectangular animal pen beyond it. We approached tentatively and peeked through the fence slats.

  The violence inside was almost cartoonish, like the work of some mad impressionist who painted only in red. The tramped grass was bathed in blood, as were the pen’s weathered posts and the stiff white bodies of the sheep themselves, flung about in attitudes of sheepish agony. One had tried to climb the fence and got its spindly legs caught between the slats. It hung before me at an odd angle, clam-shelled open from throat to crotch, as if it had been unzipped.

  I had to turn away. Others muttered and shook their heads, and someone let out a low whistle. Worm gagged and began to cry, which was seen as a tacit admission of guilt; the criminal who couldn’t face his own crime. He was led away to be locked in Martin’s museum—in what used to be the sacristy and was now the island’s makeshift jail cell—until he could be remanded to police on the mainland.

  We left the farmer to ponder his slain sheep and went back to town, plodding across wet hills in the slate-gray dusk. Back in the room, I knew I was in for a Stern Dad talking-to, so I did my best to disarm him before he could start in on me.

  “I lied to you, Dad, and I’m sorry.”

  “Yeah?” he said sarcastically, trading his wet sweater for a dry one. “That’s big of you. Now which lie are we talking about? I can hardly keep track.”

  “The one about meeting friends. There aren’t any other kids on the island. I made it up because I didn’t want you to worry about me being alone over there.”

  “Well, I do worry, even if your doctor tells me not to.”

  “I know you do.”

  “So what about these imaginary friends? Does Golan know about this?”

  I shook my head. “That was a lie, too. I just had to get those guys off my back.”

  Dad folded his arms, not sure what to believe. “Really.”

  “Better to have them think I’m a little eccentric than a sheep killer, right?”

  I took a seat at the table. Dad looked down at me for a long moment, and I wasn’t sure if he trusted me or not. Then he went to the sink and splashed water on his face. When he’d toweled off and turned around again, he seemed to have decided it was a lot less trouble to trust me.

  “You sure we don’t need to call Dr. Golan again?” he asked. “Have a nice long talk?”

  “If you want to. But I’m okay.”

  “This is exactly why I didn’t want you hanging out with those rapper guys,” he said, because he needed to close with something sufficiently parental for it to count as a proper talking-to.

  “You were right about them, Dad,” I said, though secretly I couldn’t believe either of them was capable of it. Worm and Dylan talked tough, but that was all.

  Dad sat down across from me. He looked tired. “I’d still like to know how someone manages to get a sunburn on a day like this.”

  Right. The sunburn. “Guess I’m pretty sensitive,” I said.

  “You can say that again,” he said dryly.

  He let me go, and I went to take a shower and thought about Emma. Then I brushed my teeth and thought about Emma and washed my face and thought about Emma. After that I went to my room and took the apple she’d given me out of my pocket and set it on the nightstand, and then, as if to reassure myself she still existed, I got out my phone and looked through the pictures of her I’d taken that afternoon. I was still looking when I heard my father go to bed in the next room, and still looking when the gennies kicked off and my lamp went out, and when there was no light anywhere but her face on my little screen, I lay there in the dark, still looking.

  Hoping to duck another lecture, I got up early and set out before Dad was awake. I slipped a note under his door and went to grab Emma’s apple, but it wasn’t on my nightstand where I’d left it. A thorough search of the floor uncovered a lot of dust bunnies and one leathery thing the size of a golf ball. I was starting to wonder if someone had swiped it when I realized that the leathery thing was the apple. At some point during the night it had gone profoundly bad, spoiling like I’ve never seen fruit spoil. It looked as though it had spent a year locked in a food dehydrator. When I tried to pick it up it crumbled in my hand like a clump of soil.

  Puzzled, I shrugged it off and went out. It was pissing rain but I soon left gray skies behind for the reliable sun of the loop. This time, however, there were no pretty girls waiting for me on the other side of the cairn—or anyone, for that matter. I tried not to be too disappointed, but I was, a little.

  As soon as I got to the house I started looking for Emma, but Miss Peregrine intercepted me before I’d even made it past the front hall.

  “A word, Mr. Portman,” she said, and led me into the privacy of the kitchen, still fragrant from the rich breakfast I’d missed. I felt like I’d been summoned to the principal’s office.

  Miss Peregrine propped herself against the giant cooking range. “Are you enjoying your time with us?” she said.

  I told her I was, very much.

  “That’s good,” she replied, and then her smile vanished. “I understand you had a pleasant afternoon with some of my wards yesterday. And a lively discussion as well.”

  “It was great. They’re all really
nice.” I was trying to keep things light, but I could tell she was winding me up for something.

  “Tell me,” she said, “how would you describe the nature of your discussion?”

  I tried to remember. “I don’t know … we talked about lots of things. How things are here. How they are where I’m from.”

  “Where you’re from.”

  “Right.”

  “And do you think it’s wise to discuss events in the future with children from the past?”

  “Children? Is that really how you think of them?” I regretted saying this even as the words were passing my lips.

  “It is how they regard themselves as well,” she said testily. “What would you call them?”

  Given her mood, it wasn’t a subtlety I was prepared to argue. “Children, I guess.”

  “Indeed. Now, as I was saying,” she said, emphasizing her words with little cleaver-chops of her hand on the range, “do you think it’s wise to discuss the future with children from the past?”

  I decided to go out on a limb. “No?”

  “Ah, but apparently you do! I know this because last night at dinner we were treated by Hugh to a fascinating disquisition on the wonders of twenty-first-century telecommunications technology.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm. “Did you know that when you send a letter in the twenty-first century, it can be received almost instantaneously?”

  “I think you’re talking about e-mail.”

  “Well, Hugh knew all about it.”

  “I don’t understand,” I said. “Is that a problem?”

  She unleaned herself from the range and took a limping step toward me. Even though she was a full foot shorter than I was, she still managed to be intimidating.

  “As an ymbryne, it is my sworn duty to keep those children safe and above all that means keeping them here—in the loop—on this island.”

 
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