Miss peregrines home for.., p.19
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.19

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 
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  I thought about all the long hunting trips Grandpa Portman used to go on. My family had a picture of him taken during one of these, though I don’t know who took it or when since he almost always went alone. But when I was a kid I thought it was the funniest thing because, in the picture, he’s wearing a suit. Who brings a suit on a hunting trip?

  Now I knew: Someone who’s hunting more than just animals.

  I was moved by this new idea of my grandfather, not as a paranoiac gun nut or a secretive philanderer or a man who wasn’t there for his family, but as a wandering knight who risked his life for others, living out of cars and cheap motels, stalking lethal shadows, coming home shy a few bullets and marked with bruises he could never quite explain and nightmares he couldn’t talk about. For his many sacrifices, he received only scorn and suspicion from those he loved. I guess that’s why he wrote so many letters to Emma and Miss Peregrine. They understood.

  Bronwyn returned with a decanter of coca-wine and another flask of brandy. Miss Peregrine sent her away and set about mixing them together in a teacup. Then she began to pat Miss Avocet gently on her blue-veined cheek.

  “Esmerelda,” she said, “Esmerelda, you must rouse yourself and drink this tonic I’ve prepared.”

  Miss Avocet moaned, and Miss Peregrine raised the teacup to her lips. The old woman took a few sips and, though she sputtered and coughed, most of the purplish liquid disappeared down her throat. For a moment she stared as if about to sink back into her stupor, but then she sat forward, face brightening.

  “Oh, my,” she said, her voice a dry rasp. “Have I fallen asleep? How indecorous of me.” She looked at us in mild surprise, as if we’d appeared out of nowhere. “Alma? Is that you?”

  Miss Peregrine kneaded the old woman’s bony hands. “Esmerelda, you’ve come a long way to see us in the dead of night. I’m afraid you’ve got us all terribly worked up.”

  “Have I?” Miss Avocet squinted and furrowed her brow, and her eyes seemed to fix on the opposite wall, alive with flickering shadows. Then a haunted expression stole across her face. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve come to warn you, Alma. You must be on your guard. You mustn’t allow yourselves to be taken by surprise, as I was.”

  Miss Peregrine stopped kneading. “By what?”

  “They could only have been wights. A pair of them came in the night, disguised as council members. There are no male council members, of course, but it fooled my sleep-dazed wards just long enough for the wights to bind them and drag them away.”

  Miss Peregrine gasped. “Oh, Esmerelda …”

  “Miss Bunting and I were awoken by their anguished cries,” she explained, “but we found ourselves barricaded inside the house. It took some time to force the doors, but when we did and followed the wights’ stink out of the loop, there was a gang of shadow-beasts lying in wait on the other side. They fell upon us, howling.” She stopped, choking back tears.

  “And the children?”

  Miss Avocet shook her head. All the light seemed to have gone out of her eyes. “The children were merely bait,” she said.

  Emma slid her hand into mine and squeezed, and I saw Miss Peregrine’s cheeks glisten in the firelight.

  “It was Miss Bunting and myself whom they wanted. I was able to escape, but Miss Bunting was not so fortunate.”

  “She was killed?”

  “No—abducted. Just as Miss Wren and Miss Treecreeper were when their loops were invaded a fortnight ago. They’re taking ymbrynes, Alma. It’s some sort of coordinated effort. For what purpose, I shudder to imagine.”

  “Then they’ll come for us, too,” Miss Peregrine said quietly.

  “If they can find you,” replied Miss Avocet. “You are better hidden than most, but you must be ready, Alma.”

  Miss Peregrine nodded. Miss Avocet looked helplessly at her hands, trembling in her lap like a broken-winged bird. Her voice began to hitch. “Oh, my dear children. Pray for them. They are all alone now.” And she turned away and wept.

  Miss Peregrine pulled the blanket around the old woman’s shoulders and rose. We followed her out, leaving Miss Avocet to her grief.

  * * *

  We found the children huddled around the sitting-room door. If they hadn’t heard everything Miss Avocet had said, they’d heard enough, and it showed on their anxious faces.

  “Poor Miss Avocet,” Claire whimpered, her bottom lip trembling.

  “Poor Miss Avocet’s children,” said Olive.

  “Are they coming for us now, Miss?” asked Horace.

  “We’ll need weapons!” cried Millard.

  “Battle-axes!” said Enoch.

  “Bombs!” said Hugh.

  “Stop that at once!” Miss Peregrine shouted, raising her hands for quiet. “We must all remain calm. Yes, what happened to Miss Avocet was tragic—profoundly so—but it was a tragedy that need not be repeated here. However, we must be on watch. Henceforth, you will travel beyond the house only with my consent, and then only in pairs. Should you observe a person unknown to you, even if they appear to be peculiar, come immediately and inform me. We’ll discuss these and other precautionary measures in the morning. Until then, to bed with you! This is no hour for a meeting.”

  “But Miss—” Enoch began.

  “To bed!”

  The children scurried off to their rooms. “As for you, Mr. Portman, I’m not terribly comfortable with you traveling alone. I think perhaps you should stay, at least until things calm a bit.”

  “I can’t just disappear. My dad will flip out.”

  She frowned. “In that case, you must at least spend the night. I insist upon it.”

  “I will, but only if you’ll tell me everything you know about the creatures that killed my grandfather.”

  She tilted her head, studying me with something like amusement. “Very well, Mr. Portman, I won’t argue with your need to know. Install yourself on the divan for the evening and we’ll discuss it first thing.”

  “It has to be now.” I’d waited ten years to hear the truth, and I couldn’t wait another minute. “Please.”

  “At times, young man, you tread a precariously thin line between being charmingly headstrong and insufferably pigheaded.” She turned to Emma. “Miss Bloom, would you fetch my flask of coca-wine? It seems I won’t be sleeping tonight, and I shall have to indulge if I am to keep awake.”

  * * *

  The study was too close to the children’s bedrooms for a late-night talk, so the headmistress and I adjourned to a little greenhouse that edged the woods. We sat on overturned planters among climbing roses, a kerosene lantern on the grass between us, dawn not yet broken beyond the glass walls. Miss Peregrine drew a pipe from her pocket, and bent to light it in the lamp flame. She drew a few thoughtful puffs, sending up wreaths of blue smoke, then began.

  “In ancient times people mistook us for gods,” she said, “but we peculiars are no less mortal than common folk. Time loops merely delay the inevitable, and the price we pay for using them is hefty—an irrevocable divorce from the ongoing present. As you know, long-term loop dwellers can but dip their toes into the present lest they wither and die. This has been the arrangement since time immemorial.”

  She took another puff, then continued.

  “Some years ago, around the turn of the last century, a splinter faction emerged among our people—a coterie of disaffected peculiars with dangerous ideas. They believed they had discovered a method by which the function of time loops could be perverted to confer upon the user a kind of immortality; not merely the suspension of aging, but the reversal of it. They spoke of eternal youth enjoyed outside the confines of loops, of jumping back and forth from future to past with impunity, suffering none of the ill effects that have always prevented such recklessness—in other words, of mastering time without being mastered by death. The whole notion was mad—absolute bunkum—a refutation of the empirical laws that govern everything!”

  She exhaled sharply, then paused for a moment to collect herself.
r />   “In any case. My two brothers, technically brilliant but rather lacking in sense, were taken with the idea. They even had the audacity to request my assistance in making it a reality. You’re talking about making yourselves into gods, I said. It can’t be done. And even if it can, it shouldn’t. But they would not be deterred. Having grown up among Miss Avocet’s ymbrynes-in-training, they knew more about our unique art than most peculiar males—just enough, I’m afraid, to be dangerous. Despite warnings, even threats, from the Council, in the summer of 1908 my brothers and several hundred members of this renegade faction—a number of powerful ymbrynes among them, traitors every one—ventured into the Siberian tundra to conduct their hateful experiment. For the site they chose a nameless old loop unused for centuries. We expected them to return within a week, tails between their legs, humbled by the immutable nature of nature. Instead, their comeuppance was far more dramatic: a catastrophic explosion that rattled windows as far as the Azores. Anyone within five hundred kilometers surely thought it was the end of the world. We assumed they’d all been killed, that obscene world-cracking bang their last collective utterance.”

  “But they survived,” I guessed.

  “In a manner of speaking. Others might call the state of being they subsequently assumed a kind of living damnation. Weeks later there began a series of attacks upon peculiars by awful creatures who, apart from their shadows, could not be seen except by peculiars like yourself—our very first clashes with the hollowgast. It was some time before we realized that these tentacle-mawed abominations were in fact our wayward brothers, crawled from the smoking crater left behind by their experiment. Rather than becoming gods, they had transformed themselves into devils.”

  “What went wrong?”

  “That is still a matter of debate. One theory is that they reverse-aged themselves to a time before even their souls had been conceived, which is why we call them hollowgast—because their hearts, their souls, are empty. In a cruel twist of irony, they achieved the immortality they’d been seeking. It’s believed that the hollows can live thousands of years, but it is a life of constant physical torment, of humiliating debasement—feeding on stray animals, living in isolation—and of insatiable hunger for the flesh of their former kin, because our blood is their only hope for salvation. If a hollow gorges itself on enough peculiars, it becomes a wight.”

  “That word again,” I said. “When we first met, Emma accused me of being one.”

  “I might have thought the same thing, if I hadn’t observed you beforehand.”

  “What are they?”

  “If being a hollow is a living hell—and it most certainly is—then being a wight is akin to purgatory. Wights are almost common. They have no peculiar abilities. But because they can pass for human, they live in servitude to their hollow brethren, acting as scouts and spies and procurers of flesh. It’s a hierarchy of the damned that aims someday to turn all hollows into wights and all peculiars into corpses.”

  “But what’s stopping them?” I said. “If they used to be peculiar, don’t they know all your hiding places?”

  “Fortunately, they don’t appear to retain any memory of their former lives. And though wights aren’t as strong or as frightening as hollows, they’re often just as dangerous. Unlike hollows, they’re ruled by more than instinct, and are often able to blend into the general population. It can be difficult to distinguish them from common folk, though there are certain indicators. Their eyes, for instance. Curiously, wights lack pupils.”

  I broke out in goosebumps, remembering the white-eyed neighbor I’d seen watering his overgrown lawn the night my grandfather was killed. “I think I’ve seen one. I thought he was just an old blind man.”

  “Then you are more observant than most,” she said. “Wights are adept at passing unnoticed. They tend to adopt personas invisible to society: the gray-suited man on the train; the indigent begging for spare coins; just faces in the crowd. Though some have been known to risk exposure by placing themselves in more prominent positions—physicians, politicians, clergymen—in order to interact with a greater number of people, or to have some measure of power over them, so that they can more easily discover peculiars who might be hiding among common folk—as Abe was.”

  Miss Peregrine reached for a photo album she’d brought from the house and began to flip through it. “These have been reproduced and distributed to peculiars everywhere, rather like wanted posters. Look here,” she said, pointing to a picture of two girls astride a fake reindeer, a chilling blank-eyed Santa Claus peeping out through its antlers. “This wight was discovered working in an American department store at Christmas. He was able to interact with a great many children in a remarkably short time—touching them, interrogating them—screening for signs of peculiarity.”

  She turned the page to reveal a photo of a sadistic-looking dentist. “This wight worked as an oral surgeon. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the skull he’s posing with belonged to one of his peculiar victims.”

  She flipped the page again, this time to a picture of a little girl cowering before a looming shadow. “This is Marcie. She left us thirty years ago to live with a common family in the countryside. I pleaded with her to stay, but she was determined. Not long after, she was snatched by a wight as she waited for the school bus. A camera was found at the scene with this undeveloped picture inside.”

  “Who took it?”

  “The wight himself. They are fond of dramatic gestures, and invariably leave behind some taunting memento.”

  I studied the pictures, a small, familiar dread turning inside me.

  When I couldn’t bear to look at the pictures anymore, I shut the album.

  “I tell you all this because to know it is your birthright,” Miss Peregrine said, “but also because I need your help. You are the only one among us who can go outside the loop without arousing suspicion. So long as you’re with us, and you insist upon traveling back and forth, I need you to watch for new arrivals to the island and report them to me.”

  “There was one just the other day,” I said, thinking of the birder who had upset my dad.

  “Did you see his eyes?” she asked.

  “Not really. It was dark, and he was wearing a big hat that hid part of his face.”

  Miss Peregrine chewed her knuckle, her brow furrowing.

  “Why? Do you think he could be one of them?”

  “It’s impossible to be certain without seeing the eyes,” she said, “but the possibility that you were followed to the island concerns me very much.”

  “What do you mean? By a wight?”

  “Perhaps the very one you described seeing on the night of your grandfather’s death. It would explain why they chose to spare your life—so that you could lead them to an even richer prize: this place.”

  “But how could they have known I was peculiar? I didn’t even know!”

  “If they knew about your grandfather, you can be certain they knew about you, as well.”

  I thought about all the chances they must’ve had to kill me. All the times I’d felt them nearby in the weeks after Grandpa Portman died. Had they been watching me? Waiting for me to do exactly what I did, and come here?

  Feeling overwhelmed, I put my head down on my knees. “I don’t suppose you could let me have a sip of that wine,” I said.

  “Absolutely not.”

  All of the sudden I felt my chest clench up. “Will I ever be safe anywhere?” I asked her.

  Miss Peregrine touched my shoulder. “You’re safe here,” she said. “And you may live with us as long as you like.”

  I tried to speak, but all that came out was little stutters. “But I—I can’t—my parents.”

  “They may love you,” she whispered, “but they’ll never understand.”

  * * *

  By the time I got back to town, the sun was casting its first long shadows across the streets, all-night drinkers were wheeling around lampposts on their reluctant journeys home, fishermen were trudg
ing soberly to the harbor in great black boots, and my father was just beginning to stir from a heavy sleep. As he rolled out of his bed I was crawling into mine, pulling the covers over my sandy clothes only seconds before he opened the door to check on me.

  “Feeling okay?”

  I groaned and rolled away from him, and he went out. Late that afternoon I woke to find a sympathetic note and a packet of flu pills on the common room table. I smiled and felt briefly guilty for lying to him. Then I began to worry about him, out there wandering across the headlands with his binoculars and little notebook, possibly in the company of a sheep-murdering madman.

  Rubbing the sleep from my eyes and throwing on a rain jacket, I walked a circuit around the village and then around the nearby cliffs and beaches, hoping to see either my father or the strange ornithologist—and get a good look at his eyes—but I didn’t find either of them. It was nearing dusk when I finally gave up and returned to the Priest Hole, where I found my father at the bar, tipping back a beer with the regulars. Judging from the empty bottles around him, he’d been there a while.

  I sat down next to him and asked if he’d seen the bearded birder. He said he hadn’t.

  “Well, if you do,” I said, “do me a favor and keep your distance, okay?”

  He looked at me strangely. “Why?”

  “He just rubs me the wrong way. What if he’s some nutcase? What if he’s the one who killed those sheep?”

  “Where do you get these bizarre ideas?”

  I wanted to tell him. I wanted to explain everything, and for him to tell me he understood and offer some tidbit of parental advice. I wanted, in that moment, for everything to go back to the way it had been before we came here; before I ever found that letter from Miss Peregrine, back when I was just a sort-of-normal messed-up rich kid in the suburbs. Instead, I sat next to my dad for awhile and talked about nothing, and I tried to remember what my life had been like in that unfathomably distant era that was four weeks ago, or imagine what it might be like four weeks from now—but I couldn’t. Eventually we ran out of nothing to talk about, and I excused myself and went upstairs to be alone.

 
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