Miss peregrines home for.., p.16
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.16

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 
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“Okay.”

  “Yours is a world they can never be part of, Mr. Portman. So what’s the use in filling their heads with grand talk about the exotic wonders of the future? Now you’ve got half the children begging for a jet-airplane trip to America and the other half dreaming of the day when they can own a telephone-computer like yours.”

  “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”

  “This is their home. I have tried to make it as fine a place as I could. But the plain fact is they cannot leave, and I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make them want to.”

  “But why can’t they?”

  She narrowed her eyes at me for a moment and then shook her head. “Forgive me. I continue to underestimate the breadth of your ignorance.” Miss Peregrine, who seemed to be constitutionally incapable of idleness, took a saucepan from the stove top and began scouring it with a steel brush. I wondered if she was ignoring my question or simply weighing how best to dumb down the answer.

  When the pan was clean she clapped it back on the stove and said, “They cannot linger in your world, Mr. Portman, because in a short time they would grow old and die.”

  “What do you mean, die?”

  “I’m not certain how I can be more direct. They’ll die, Jacob.” She spoke tersely, as if wishing to put the topic behind us as quickly as possible. “It may appear to you that we’ve found a way to cheat death, but it’s an illusion. If the children loiter too long on your side of the loop, all the many years from which they have abstained will descend upon them at once, in a matter of hours.”

  I pictured a person shriveling up and crumbling to dust like the apple on my nightstand. “That’s awful,” I said with a shudder.

  “The few instances of it that I’ve had the misfortune to witness are among the worst memories of my life. And let me assure you, I’ve lived long enough to see some truly dreadful things.”

  “Then it’s happened before.”

  “To a young girl under my own care, regrettably, a number of years ago. Her name was Charlotte. It was the first and last time I ever took a trip to visit one of my sister ymbrynes. In that brief time Charlotte managed to evade the older children who were minding her and wander out of the loop. It was 1985 or ’86 at that time, I believe. Charlotte was roving blithely about the village by herself when she was discovered by a constable. When she couldn’t explain who she was or where she’d come from—not to his liking, anyhow—the poor girl was shipped off to a child welfare agency on the mainland. It was two days before I could reach her, and by that time she’d aged thirty-five years.”

  “I think I’ve seen her picture,” I said. “A grown woman in little girl’s clothes.”

  Miss Peregrine nodded somberly. “She never was the same after that. Not right in the head.”

  “What happened to her?”

  “She lives with Miss Nightjar now. Miss Nightjar and Miss Thrush take all the hard cases.”

  “But it’s not as if they’re confined to the island, is it?” I asked. “Couldn’t they still leave now, from 1940?”

  “Yes, and begin aging again, as normal. But to what end? To be caught up in a ferocious war? To encounter people who fear and misunderstand them? And there are other dangers as well. It’s best to stay here.”

  “What other dangers?”

  Her face clouded, as if she regretted having brought it up. “Nothing you need concern yourself with. Not yet, at least.”

  With that she shooed me outside. I asked again what she meant by “other dangers,” but she shut the screen door in my face. “Enjoy the morning,” she chirped, forcing a smile. “Go find Miss Bloom, I’m sure she’s dying to see you.” And she disappeared into the house.

  I wandered into the yard, wondering how I was supposed to get the image of that withered apple out of my head. Before long, though I did. It’s not that I forgot; it just stopped bothering me. It was the strangest thing.

  Resuming my mission to find Emma, I learned from Hugh that she was on a supply run to the village, so I settled under a shade tree to wait. Within five minutes I was half-asleep in the grass, smiling like a dope, wondering serenely what might be on the menu for lunch. It was as if just being here had some kind of narcotic effect on me; like the loop itself was a drug—a mood enhancer and a sedative combined—and if I stayed too long, I’d never want to leave.

  If that were true, I thought, it would explain a lot of things, like how people could live the same day over and over for decades without losing their minds. Yes, it was beautiful and life was good, but if every day were exactly alike and if the kids really couldn’t leave, as Miss Peregrine had said, then this place wasn’t just a heaven but a kind of prison, too. It was just so hypnotizingly pleasant that it might take a person years to notice, and by then it would be too late; leaving would be too dangerous.

  So it’s not even a decision, really. You stay. It’s only later—years later—that you begin to wonder what might’ve happened if you hadn’t.

  * * *

  I must’ve dozed off, because around midmorning I awoke to something nudging my foot. I cracked an eye to discover a little humanoid figure trying to hide inside my shoe, but it had gotten tangled in the laces. It was stiff-limbed and awkward, half a hubcap tall, dressed in army fatigues. I watched it struggle to free itself for a moment and then go rigid, a wind-up toy on its last wind. I untied my shoe to extricate it and then turned it over, looking for the wind-up key, but I couldn’t find one. Up close it was a strange, crude-looking thing, its head a stump of rounded clay, its face a smeared thumbprint.

  “Bring him here!” someone called from across the yard. A boy sat waving at me from a tree stump at the edge of the woods.

  Lacking any pressing engagements, I picked up the clay soldier and walked over. Arranged around the boy was a whole menagerie of wind-up men, staggering around like damaged robots. As I drew near, the one in my hands jerked to life again, squirming as if he were trying to get away. I put it with the others and wiped shed clay on my pants.

  “I’m Enoch,” the boy said. “You must be him.”

  “I guess I am,” I replied.

  “Sorry if he bothered you,” he said, herding the one I’d returned back to the others. “They get ideas, see. Ain’t properly trained yet. Only made ’em last week.” He spoke with a slight cockney accent. Cadaverous black circles ringed his eyes like a raccoon, and his overalls—the same ones he’d worn in pictures I’d seen—were streaked with clay and dirt. Except for his pudgy face, he might’ve been a chimney sweep out of Oliver Twist.

  “You made these?” I asked, impressed. “How?”

  “They’re homunculi,” he replied. “Sometimes I put doll heads on ’em, but this time I was in a hurry and didn’t bother.”

  “What’s a homunculi?”

  “More than one homunculus.” He said it like it was something any idiot would know. “Some people think its homunculuses, but I think that sounds daft, don’t you?”

  “Definitely.”

  The clay soldier I’d returned began wandering again. With his foot, Enoch nudged it back toward the group. They seemed to be going haywire, colliding with one another like excited atoms. “Fight, you nancies!” he commanded, which is when I realized they weren’t simply bumping into one another, but hitting and kicking. The errant clay man wasn’t interested in fighting, however, and when he began to totter away once more, Enoch snatched him up and snapped off his legs.

  “That’s what happens to deserters in my army!” he cried, and tossed the crippled figure into the grass, where it writhed grotesquely as the others fell upon it.

  “Do you treat all your toys that way?”

  “Why?” he said. “Do you feel sorry for them?”

  “I don’t know. Should I?”

  “No. They wouldn’t be alive at all if it wasn’t for me.”

  I laughed, and Enoch scowled at me. “What’s so funny?”

  “You made a joke.”

  “You are a bit thick, aren’t you?” he said. “
Look here.” He grabbed one of the soldiers and stripped off its clothes. Then with both hands he cracked it down the middle and removed from its sticky chest a tiny, convulsing heart. The soldier instantly went limp. Enoch held the heart between his thumb and forefinger for me to see.

  “It’s from a mouse,” he explained. “That’s what I can do—take the life of one thing and give it to another, either clay like this or something that used to be alive but ain’t anymore.” He tucked the stilled heart into his overalls. “Soon as I figger out how to train ’em up proper, I’ll have a whole army like this. Only they’ll be massive.” And he raised an arm up over his head to show me just how massive.

  “What can you do?” he said.

  “Me? Nothing, really. I mean, nothing special like you.”

  “Pity,” he replied. “Are you going to come live with us anyway?” He didn’t say it like he wanted me to, exactly; he just seemed curious.

  “I don’t know,” I said. “I hadn’t thought about it.” That was a lie, of course. I had thought about it, but mostly in a daydreaming sort of way.

  He looked at me suspiciously. “But don’t you want to?”

  “I don’t know yet.”

  Narrowing his eyes, he nodded slowly, as if he’d just figured me out.

  Then he leaned in and said under his breath, “Emma told you about Raid the Village, didn’t she?”

  “Raid the what?”

  He looked away. “Oh, it’s nothing. Just a game some of us play.”

  I got the distinct feeling I was being set up. “She didn’t tell me,” I said.

  Enoch scooted toward me on the stump. “I bet she didn’t,” he said. “I bet there’s a lot of things about this place she wouldn’t like you to know.”

  “Oh yeah? Why?”

  “Cause then you’ll see it’s not as great as everybody wants you to think, and you won’t stay.”

  “What kinds of things?” I asked.

  “Can’t tell,” he said, flashing me a devilish smile. “I could get in big trouble.”

  “Whatever,” I said. “You brought it up.”

  I stood to go. “Wait!” he cried, grabbing my sleeve.

  “Why should I if you’re not going to tell me anything?”

  He rubbed his chin judiciously. “It’s true, I ain’t allowed to say anything … but I reckon I couldn’t stop you if you was to go upstairs and have a look in the room at the end of the hall.”

  “Why?” I said. “What’s in there?”

  “My friend Victor. He wants to meet you. Go up and have a chat.”

  “Fine,” I said. “I will.”

  I started toward the house and then heard Enoch whistle. He mimed running a hand along the top of a door. The key, he mouthed.

  “What do I need a key for if someone’s in there?”

  He turned away, pretending not to hear.

  * * *

  I sauntered into the house and up the stairs like I had business there and didn’t care who knew it. Reaching the second floor unobserved, I crept to the room at end of the hall and tried the door. It was locked. I knocked, but there was no answer. Glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, I ran my hand along the top of the doorframe. Sure enough, I found a key.

  I unlocked the door and slipped inside. It was like any other bedroom in the house—there was a dresser, a wardrobe, a vase of flowers on a nightstand. Late-morning sun shone through drawn curtains the color of mustard, throwing such yellow light everywhere that the whole room seemed encased in amber. Only then did I notice a young man lying in the bed, his eyes closed and mouth slightly open, half-hidden behind a lace curtain.

  I froze, afraid I’d wake him. I recognized him from Miss Peregrine’s album, though I hadn’t seen him at meals or around the house, and we’d never been introduced. In the picture he’d been asleep in bed, just as he was now. Had he been quarantined, infected with some sleeping sickness? Was Enoch trying to get me sick, too?

  “Hello?” I whispered. “Are you awake?”

  He didn’t move. I put a hand on his arm and shook him gently. His head lolled to one side.

  Then something terrible occurred to me. To test a theory, I held my hand in front of his mouth. I couldn’t feel his breath. My finger brushed his lips, which were cold as ice. Shocked, I pulled my hand away.

  Then I heard footsteps and spun around to see Bronwyn in the doorway. “You ain’t supposed to be in here!” she hissed.

  “He’s dead,” I said.

  Bronwyn’s eyes went to the boy and her face puckered. “That’s Victor.”

  Suddenly it came to me, where I’d seen his face. He was the boy lifting the boulder in my grandfather’s pictures. Victor was Bronwyn’s brother. There was no telling how long he might’ve been dead; as long as the loop kept looping, it could be fifty years and only look like a day.

  “What happened to him?” I asked.

  “Maybe I’ll wake old Victor up,” came a voice from behind us, “and you can ask him yourself.” It was Enoch. He came in and shut the door.

  Bronwyn beamed at him through welling tears. “Would you wake him? Oh please, Enoch.”

  “I shouldn’t,” he said. “I’m running low on hearts as it is, and it takes a right lot of ’em to rise up a human being, even for just a minute.”

  Bronwyn crossed to the dead boy and began to smooth his hair with her fingers. “Please,” she begged, “it’s been ages since we talked to Victor.”

  “Well, I do have some cow hearts pickling in the basement,” he said, pretending to consider it. “But I hate to use inferior ingredients. Fresh is always better!”

  Bronwyn began to cry in earnest. One of her tears fell onto the boy’s jacket, and she hurried to wipe it away with her sleeve.

  “Don’t get so choked,” Enoch said, “you know I can’t stand it. Anyway, it’s cruel, waking Victor. He likes it where he is.”

  “And where’s that?” I said.

  “Who knows? But whenever we rouse him for a chat he seems in a dreadful hurry to get back.”

  “What’s cruel is you toying with Bronwyn like that, and tricking me,” I said. “And if Victor’s dead, why don’t you just bury him?”

  Bronwyn flashed me a look of utter derision. “Then we’d never get to see him,” she said.

  “That stings, mate,” said Enoch. “I only mentioned coming up here because I wanted you to have all the facts, like. I’m on your side.”

  “Yeah? What are the facts, then? How did Victor die?”

  Bronwyn looked up. “He got killed by an—owww!” she squealed as Enoch pinched the back of her arm.

  “Hush!” he cried. “It ain’t for you to tell!”

  “This is ridiculous!” I said. “If neither of you will tell me, I’ll just go ask Miss Peregrine.”

  Enoch took a quick stride toward me, eyes wide. “Oh no, you mustn’t do that.”

  “Yeah? Why mustn’t I?”

  “The Bird don’t like us talking about Victor,” he said. “It’s why she wears black all the time, you know. Anyway, she can’t find out we been in here. She’ll hang us by our pinky toes!”

  As if on cue, we heard the unmistakable sound of Miss Peregrine limping up the stairs. Bronwyn turned white and dashed past me out the door, but before Enoch could escape I blocked his path. “Out of the way!” he hissed.

  “Tell me what happened to Victor!”

  “I can’t!”

  “Then tell me about Raid the Village.”

  “I can’t tell you that, neither!” He tried to shove past me again, but when he realized he couldn’t, he gave up. “All right, just shut the door and I’ll whisper it to you!”

  I closed it just as Miss Peregrine was reaching the landing. We stood with our ears pressed to the door for a moment, listening for a sign that we’d been spotted. The headmistress’s footsteps came halfway down the hall toward us, then stopped. Another door creaked open, then shut.

  “She’s gone into her room,” Enoch whispered.
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  “So,” I said. “Raid the Village.”

  Looking like he was sorry he’d brought it up, he motioned me away from the door. I followed, leaning down so he could whisper into my ear. “Like I said, it’s a game we play. It works just like the name says.”

  “You mean you actually raid the village?”

  “Smash it up, chase people round, take what we like, burn things down. It’s all a good laugh.”

  “But that’s terrible!”

  “We got to practice our skills somehow, don’t we? Case we ever need to defend ourselves. Otherwise we’d get rusty. Plus there’s rules. We ain’t allowed to kill anybody. Just scare ’em up a bit, like. And if someone does get hurt, well, they’re back right as rain the next day and don’t remember nothing about it.”

  “Does Emma play, too?”

  “Nah. She’s like you. Says it’s evil.”

  “Well, it is.”

  He rolled his eyes. “You two deserve each other.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  He rose up to his full five-foot-four-inch height and poked a finger into my chest. “It means you better not get all high an’ mighty with me, mate. Because if we didn’t raid the damned village once in a while, most of this lot woulda gone off their heads ages ago.” He went to the door and put his hand on the knob and then turned back to face me. “And if you think we’re wicked, wait’ll you see them.”

  “Them who? What the hell is everyone talking about?”

  He held up one finger to shush me, then went out.

  I was alone again. My eyes were drawn to the body on the bed. What happened to you, Victor?

  Maybe he’d gone crazy and killed himself, I thought—gotten so sick of this cheerful but futureless eternity that he’d guzzled rat poison or taken a dive off a cliff. Or maybe it was them, those “other dangers” Miss Peregrine had alluded to.

  I stepped into the hall and had just started toward the stairs when I heard Miss Peregrine’s voice behind a half-closed door. I dove into the nearest room, and stayed hidden until she’d limped past me and down the stairs. Then I noticed a pair of boots at the front of a crisply made bed—Emma’s boots. I was in her bedroom.

 
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