Miss peregrines home for.., p.18
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.18

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

  The water was shockingly cold at first—not a great situation vis-à-vis wearing only boxer shorts—but I got used to the temperature pretty quickly. We waded out past the rocks where, lashed to a depth marker, was a canoe. We clambered into it and Emma handed me an oar and we both started paddling, headed toward the lighthouse. The night was warm and the sea calm, and for a few minutes I lost myself in the pleasant rhythm of oars slapping water. About a hundred yards from the lighthouse, Emma stopped paddling and stepped overboard. To my amazement, she didn’t slip under the waves but stood up, submerged only to her knees.

  “Are you on a sandbar or something?” I asked.

  “Nope.” She reached into the canoe, pulled out a little anchor, and dropped it. It fell about three feet before stopping with a metallic clang. A moment later the lighthouse beam swept past and I saw the hull of a ship stretching beneath us on all sides.

  “A shipwreck!”

  “Come on,” she said, “we’re nearly there. And bring your mask.” She started walking across the wrecked boat’s hull.

  I stepped out gingerly and followed. To anyone watching from shore, it would’ve looked like we were walking on water.

  “How big is this thing, anyway?” I said.

  “Massive. It’s an allied warship. Hit a friendly mine and sank right here.”

  She stopped. “Look away from the lighthouse for a minute,” she said. “Let your eyes get used to the dark.”

  So we stood facing the shore and waited as small waves slapped at our thighs. “All right, now follow me and take a giant breath.” She walked over to a dark hole in the ship’s hull—a door, from the look of it—then sat down on the edge and plunged in.

  This is insane, I thought. And then I strapped on the mask she’d given me and plunged in after her.

  I peered into the enveloping blackness between my feet to see Emma pulling herself even farther down by the rungs of a ladder. I grabbed the top of it and followed, descending hand over hand until it stopped at a metal floor, where she was waiting. We seemed to be in some sort of cargo hold, though it was too dark to tell much more than that.

  I tapped her elbow and pointed to my mouth. I need to breathe. She patted my arm condescendingly and reached for a length of plastic tubing that hung nearby; it was connected to a pipe that ran up the ladder to the surface. She put the tube in her mouth and blew, her cheeks puffing out with the effort, then took a breath from it and passed it to me. I sucked in a welcome lungful of air. We were twenty feet underwater, inside an old shipwreck, and we were breathing.

  Emma pointed at a doorway in front of us, little more than a black hole in the murk. I shook my head. Don’t want to. But she took my hand as though I were a frightened toddler and led me toward it, bringing the tube along.

  We drifted through the doorway into total darkness. For a while we just hung there, passing the breathing tube between us. There was no sound but our breaths bubbling up and obscure thuds from deep inside the ship, pieces of the broken hull knocking in the current. If I had shut my eyes it wouldn’t have been any darker. We were like astronauts floating in a starless universe.

  But then a baffling and magnificent thing happened—one by one, the stars came out, here and there a green flash in the dark. I thought I was hallucinating. But then more lit up, and still more, until a whole constellation surged around us like a million green twinkling stars, lighting our bodies, reflecting in our masks. Emma held out a hand and flicked her wrist, but rather than producing a ball of fire her hand glowed a scintillating blue. The green stars coalesced around it, flashing and whirling, echoing her movements like a school of fish, which, I realized, is just what they were.

  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.”

  “They’re beautiful.”

  “Yes.”

  “And peculiar.”

  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.”

  “Why not?”

  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?!”

  “I had to. He’d practically worked it out for himself, anyway.”

  Hugh seemed taken aback for a moment but then turned and gave me a resolute handshake. “Then welcome to the family.”

  I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, “Thanks.”

  On the way to the house, we gleaned sketchy bits of information from Hugh about what had happened, but mostly we just ran. When we stopped in the woods to catch our breath, he said, “It’s one of the Bird’s ymbryne friends. She winged in an hour ago in a terrible state, yelling blue murder and rousing everyone from their beds. Before we could understand what she was getting at she fainted dead off.” He wrung his hands, looking miserable. “Oh, I just know something wicked’s happened.”

  “I hope you’re wrong,” said Emma, and we ran on.

  * * *

  In the hall just outside the sitting room’s closed door, children in rumpled nightclothes huddled around a kerosene lantern, trading rumors about what might have happened.

  “Perhaps they forgot to reset their loop,” said Claire.

  “Bet you it was hollows,” Enoch said. “Bet they ate the lot of ’em too, right down to their boots!”

  Claire and Olive wailed and clapped their little hands over their faces. Horace knelt beside them and said in a comforting voice, “There, there. Don’t let Enoch fill your heads with rubbish. Everyone knows hollows like young ones best. That’s why they let Miss Peregrine’s friend go—she tastes like old coffee grounds!”

  Olive peeked out from between her fingers. “What do young ones taste like?”

  “Lingonberries,” he said matter-of-factly. The girls wailed again.

  “Leave them alone!” Hugh shouted, and a squadron of bees sent Horace yelping down the hall.

  “What’s going on out there?” Miss Peregrine called from inside the sitting room. “Is that Mr. Apiston I hear? Where are Miss Bloom and Mr. Portman?”

  Emma cringed and shot Hugh a nervous look. “She knows?”

  “When she found out you were gone, she just about went off her chump. Thought you’d been abducted by wights or some barminess. Sorry, Em. I had to tell her.”

  Emma shook her head, but all we could do was go in and face the music. Fiona gave us a little salute—as if to wish us luck—and we opened the doors.

  Inside the sitting room, the only light was a hearth fire that threw our quivering shadows against the wall. Bronwyn hovered anxiously around an old woman who was teetering half-conscious in a chair, mummied up in a blanket. Miss Peregrine sat on an ottoman, feeding the woman spoonfuls of dark liquid.

  When Emma saw her face, she froze. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “It’s Miss Avocet.”

  Only then did I recognize her, though just barely, from the photograph Miss Peregrine had shown me of herself as a young girl. Miss Avocet had seemed so indomitable then, but now she looked frail and weak.

  As we stood watching, Miss Peregrine brought a silver flask to Miss Avocet’s lips and tipped it, and for a moment the elder ymbryne seemed to revive, sitting forward with brightening eyes. But then her expression dulled again and she sank back into the chair.

  “Miss Bruntley,” said Miss Peregrine to Bronwyn, “go and make up the fainting couch for Miss Avocet and then fetch a bottle of coca wine and another flask of brandy.”

  Bronwyn trooped out, nodding solemnly as they passed. Next Miss Peregrine turned to us and said in a low voice, “I am tremendously disappointed in you, Miss Bloom. Tremendously. And of all the nights to sneak away.”

  “I’m sorry, Miss. But how was I to know something bad would happen?”

  “I should punish you. However, given the circumstances, it hardly seems worth the effort.” She raised a hand and smoothed her mentor’s white hair. “Miss Avocet would never have left her wards to come here unless something dire had taken place.”

  The roaring fire made beads of sweat break out on my forehead, but in her chair Miss Avocet lay shivering. Would she die? Was the tragic scene that had played out between my grandfather and me about to play out again, this time between Miss Peregrine and her teacher? I pictured it: me holding my grandfather’s body, terrified and confused, never suspecting the truth about him or myself. What was happening now, I decided, was nothing like what had happened to me. Miss Peregrine had always known who she was.

  It hardly seemed like the time to bring it up, but I was angry and couldn’t help myself. “Miss Peregrine?” I began, and she looked up. “When were you going to tell me?”

  She was about to ask what, but then her eyes went to Emma, and she seemed to read the answer on her face. For a moment she looked mad, but then she saw my anger, and her own faded. “Soon, lad. Please understand. To have laid the entire truth upon you at our first meeting would have been an awful shock. Your behavior was unpredictable. You might’ve fled, never to return. I could not take that risk.”

  “So instead you tried to seduce me with food and fun and girls while keeping all the bad things a secret?”

  Emma gasped. “Seduce? Oh, please, don’t think that of me, Jacob. I couldn’t bear it.”

  “I fear you’ve badly misjudged us,” said Miss Peregrine. “As for seducing you, what you’ve seen is how we live. There has been no deception, only the withholding of a few facts.”

  “Well here’s a fact for you,” I said. “One of those creatures killed my grandfather.”

  Miss Peregrine stared at the fire for a moment. “I am very sorry to hear that.”

  “I saw one with my own eyes. When I told people about it, they tried to convince me I was crazy. But I wasn’t, and neither was my grandfather. His whole life he’d been telling me the truth, and I didn’t believe him.” Shame flooded over me. “If I had, maybe he’d still be alive.”

  Miss Peregrine saw that I was wobbling and offered me the chair across from Miss Avocet.

  I sat, and Emma knelt down beside me. “Abe must’ve known you were peculiar,” she said. “An
d he must’ve had a good reason for not telling you.”

  “He did indeed know,” replied Miss Peregrine. “He said as much in a letter.”

  “I don’t understand, then. If it was all true—all his stories—and if he knew I was like him, why did he keep it a secret until the last minute of his life?”

  Miss Peregrine spoon-fed more brandy to Miss Avocet, who groaned and sat up a little before settling back into the chair. “I can only imagine that he wanted to protect you,” she said. “Ours can be a life of trials and deprivations. Abe’s life was doubly so because he was born a Jew in the worst of times. He faced a double genocide, of Jews by the Nazis and of peculiars by the hollowgast. He was tormented by the idea that he was hiding here while his people, both Jews and peculiars, were being slaughtered.”

  “He used to say he’d gone to war to fight monsters,” I said.

  “He did,” said Emma.

  “The war ended the Nazis’ rule, but the hollowgast emerged stronger than ever,” Miss Peregrine continued. “So, like many peculiars, we remained in hiding. But your grandfather returned a changed man. He’d become a warrior, and he was determined to build a life for himself outside the loop. He refused to hide.”

  “I begged him not to go to America,” Emma said. “We all did.”

  “Why did he choose America?” I asked.

  “It had few hollowgast at that time,” Miss Peregrine replied. “After the war there was a minor exodus of peculiars to America. For a while many were able to pass as common, as your grandfather did. It was his fondest wish to be common, to live a common life. He often mentioned it in his letters. I’m sure that’s why he kept the truth from you for so long. He wanted for you what he could never have for himself.”

  “To be ordinary,” I said.

  Miss Peregrine nodded. “But he could never escape his peculiarity. His unique skill, coupled with the prowess he’d honed during the war as a hunter of hollows, made him too valuable. He was often pressed into service, asked to help eradicate troublesome pockets of hollows. His nature was such that he rarely refused.”

 
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