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Miss peregrines home for.., p.20
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.20

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 
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  On Tuesday night, most of what I thought I understood about myself had turned out to be wrong. On Sunday morning, my dad and I were supposed to pack our things and go home. I had just a few days to decide what to do. Stay or go—neither option seemed good. How could I possibly stay here and leave behind everything I’d known? But after all I’d learned, how could I go home?

  Even worse, there was no one I could talk to about it. Dad was out of the question. Emma made frequent and passionate arguments as to why I should stay, none of which acknowledged the life I would be abandoning (however meager it seemed), or how the sudden inexplicable disappearance of their only child might affect my parents, or the stifling suffocation that Emma herself had admitted feeling inside the loop. She would only say, “With you here, it’ll be better.”

  Miss Peregrine was even less helpful. Her only answer was that she couldn’t make such a decision for me, even though I only wanted to talk it through. Still, it was obvious she wanted me to stay; beyond my own safety, my presence in the loop would make everyone else safer. But I didn’t relish the idea of spending my life as their watchdog. (I was beginning to suspect my grandfather had felt the same way, and it was part of the reason he’d refused to return after the war.)

  Joining the peculiar children would also mean I wouldn’t finish high school or go to college or do any of the normal growing-up things people do. Then again, I had to keep reminding myself, I wasn’t normal; and as long as hollows were hunting me, any life lived outside the loop would almost certainly be cut short. I’d spend the rest of my days living in fear, looking over my shoulder, tormented by nightmares, waiting for them to finally come back and punch my ticket. That sounded a lot worse than missing out on college.

  Then I thought: Isn’t there a third option? Couldn’t I be like Grandpa Portman, who for fifty years had lived and thrived and fended off hollows outside the loop? That’s when the self-deprecating voice in my head kicked in.

  He was military-trained, dummy. A stone-cold badass. He had a walk-in closet full of sawed-off shotguns. The man was Rambo compared to you.

  I could sign up for a class at the gun range, the optimistic part of me would think. Take Karate. Work out.

  Are you joking? You couldn’t even protect yourself in high school! You had to bribe that redneck to be your bodyguard. And you’d wet your pants if you so much as pointed a real gun at anyone.

  No, I wouldn’t.

  You’re weak. You’re a loser. That’s why he never told you who you really were. He knew you couldn’t handle it.

  Shut up. Shut up.

  For days I went back and forth like this. Stay or go. I obsessed constantly without resolution. Meanwhile, Dad completely lost steam on his book. The less he worked, the more discouraged he got, and the more discouraged he got, the more time he spent in the bar. I’d never seen him drink that way—six, seven beers a night—and I didn’t want to be around him when he was like that. He was dark, and when he wasn’t sulking in silence he would tell me things I really didn’t want to know.

  “One of these days your mother’s gonna leave me,” he said one night. “If I don’t make something happen pretty soon, I really think she might.”

  I started avoiding him. I’m not sure he even noticed. It became depressingly easy to lie about my comings and goings.

  Meanwhile, at the home for peculiar children, Miss Peregrine instituted a near-lockdown. It was like martial law had been declared: The smaller kids couldn’t go anywhere without an escort, the older ones traveled in pairs, and Miss Peregrine had to know where everyone was at all times. Just getting permission to go outside was an ordeal.

  Sentries were drafted into rotating shifts to watch the front and rear of the house. At all times of the day and most of the night you could see bored faces peeping out of windows. If they spotted someone approaching, they yanked a pull-chain that rang a bell in Miss Peregrine’s room, which meant that whenever I arrived she’d be waiting inside the door to interrogate me. What was happening outside the loop? Had I seen anything strange? Was I sure I hadn’t been followed?

  Not surprisingly, the kids began to go a little nuts. The little ones got rambunctious while the older ones moped, complaining about the new rules in voices just loud enough to be overheard. Dramatic sighs erupted out of thin air, often the only cue that Millard had wandered into a room. Hugh’s insects swarmed and stung people until they were banished from the house, after which Hugh spent all his time at the window, his bees screening the other side of the glass.

  Olive, claiming she had misplaced her leaden shoes, took to crawling around the ceiling like a fly, dropping grains of rice on people’s heads until they looked up and noticed her, at which point she’d burst into laughter so all-consuming that her levitation would falter and she’d have to grab onto a chandelier or curtain rod just to keep from falling. Strangest of all was Enoch, who disappeared into his basement laboratory to perform experimental surgeries on his clay soldiers that would’ve made Dr. Frankenstein cringe: amputating the limbs from two to make a hideous spider-man of a third, or cramming four chicken hearts into a single chest cavity in an attempt to create a super-clay-man who would never run out of energy. One by one their little gray bodies failed under the strain, and the basement came to resemble a Civil War field hospital.

  For her part, Miss Peregrine remained in a constant state of motion, chain-smoking pipes while limping from room to room to check on the children, as if they might disappear the moment they left her sight. Miss Avocet stayed on, emerging from her torpor now and then to wander the halls, calling out forlornly for her poor abandoned wards before slumping into someone’s arms to be taken back to bed. There followed a great deal of paranoid speculation about Miss Avocet’s tragic ordeal and why hollows would want to kidnap ymbrynes, with theories ranging from the bizarre (to create the biggest time loop in history, large enough to swallow the whole planet) to the ridiculously optimistic (to keep the hollows company; being a horrible soul-eating monster can get pretty lonely).

  Eventually, a morbid quiet settled over the house. Two days of confinement had made everyone lethargic. Believing that routine was the best defense against depression, Miss Peregrine tried to keep everyone interested in her daily lessons, in preparing the daily meals, and in keeping the house spic and span. But whenever they weren’t under direct orders to do something, the children sank heavily into chairs, stared listlessly out locked windows, paged through dog-eared books they’d read a hundred times before, or slept.

  I’d never seen Horace’s peculiar talent in action until, one evening, he began to scream. A bunch of us rushed upstairs to the garret where he’d been on sentry duty to find him rigid in a chair, in the grips of what seemed to be a waking nightmare, clawing at the air in horror. At first his screaming was just that, but then he began to babble, yelling about the seas boiling and ash raining from the sky and an endless blanket of smoke smothering the earth. After a few minutes of these apocalyptic pronouncements, he seemed to wear himself out and fell into an uneasy sleep.

  The others had seen this happen before—often enough that there were photos of his episodes in Miss Peregrine’s album—and they knew what to do. Under the headmistress’s direction, they carried him by the arms and legs to bed, and when he woke a few hours later he claimed he couldn’t remember the dream and that dreams he couldn’t remember rarely came true. The others accepted this because they already had too much else to worry about. I sensed he was holding something back.

  When someone goes missing in a town as small as Cairnholm, it doesn’t go unnoticed. That’s why on Wednesday, when Martin failed to open his museum or stop by the Priest Hole for his customary nightcap, people began to wonder if he was sick, and when Kev’s wife went to check on him and found his front door hanging open and his wallet and glasses on the kitchen counter but no one at home, people began to wonder if he was dead. When he still hadn’t turned up the next day, a gang of men was dispatched to open sheds and peer beneath overtur
ned boats, searching anywhere a wifeless man who loved whiskey might sleep off a binge. But they’d only just begun when a call came in over the short-band radio: Martin’s body had been fished out of the ocean.

  I was in the pub with my dad when the fisherman who’d found him came in. It was hardly past noon but he was issued a beer on principle, and within minutes the man was telling his story.

  “I was up Gannet’s Point reelin’ in my nets,” he began. “They was heavy as anything, which was odd since all’s I generally catch out thatways is just tidy little nothins, shrimps and such. Thought I’d got snagged on a crab trap, so I grab for the gaff and poke around under the boat till it hooks on something.” We all scooted closer on our stools, like it was story-time in some morbid kindergarten. “It was Martin all right. Looked like he’d taken a quick trip down a cliffside and got nibbled by sharks. Lord knows what business he had bein’ out by them cliffs in the dead of night in just his robe and trolleys.”

  “He weren’t dressed?” Kev asked.

  “Dressed for bed, maybe,” said the fisherman. “Not for a walk in the wet.”

  Brief prayers were muttered for Martin’s soul, and then people began trading theories. Within minutes the place was a smoke-filled den of tipsy Sherlock Holmses.

  “He coulda been drunk,” one man ventured.

  “Or if he was out by the cliffs, maybe he seen the sheep killer and was chasin’ after,” said another.

  “What about that squirrely new fella?” the fisherman said. “The one who’s camping.”

  My father straightened on his barstool. “I ran into him,” he said. “Two nights ago.”

  I turned to him in surprise. “You didn’t tell me.”

  “I was going to the chemist, trying to catch him before he closed, and this guy’s headed the other way, out of town. In a huge hurry. I bump his shoulder as he passes, just to ruffle him. He stops and stares at me. Trying to be intimidating. I get in his face, tell him I want to know what he’s doing here, what he’s working on. Because people here talk about themselves, I say.”

  Kev leaned across the bar. “And?”

  “He looks like he’s about to take a swing at me, but then just walks off.”

  A lot of the men had questions—what an ornithologist does, why the guy was camping, and other things I already knew. I had only one question, which I’d been itching to ask. “Did you notice anything strange about him? About his face?”

  My father thought for a second. “Yeah, actually. He had on sunglasses.”

  “At night?”

  “Weirdest damn thing.”

  A sick feeling came over me, and I wondered how close my father had come to something far worse than a fistfight. I knew I had to tell Miss Peregrine about this—and soon.

  “Ah, bollocks,” said Kev. “There ain’t been a murder on Cairnholm in a hundred years. Why would anyone want to kill old Martin, anyway? It don’t make sense. I’ll bet you all a round that when his autopsy comes back, it says he was arseholed right into the next century.”

  “Could be a tidy spell before that happens,” the fisherman said. “Storm that’s rollin’ in now, weatherman says it’s gonna be a right bomper. Worst we’ve had all year.”

  “Weatherman says,” Kev scoffed. “I wouldn’t trust that silly bugger to know if it’s raining now.”

  * * *

  The islanders often made gloomy predictions about what Mother Nature had in store for Cairnholm—they were at the mercy of the elements, after all, and pessimistic by default—but this time their worst fears were confirmed. The wind and rain that had pelted the island all week strengthened that night into a vicious band of storms that closed blackly over the sky and whipped the sea into foam. Between rumors about Martin having been murdered and the weather, the town went into lockdown much as the children’s home had. People stayed in their houses. Windows were shuttered and doors bolted tight. Boats clattered against their moorings in the heavy chop but none left the harbor; to take one out in such a gale would’ve been suicidal. And because the mainland police couldn’t collect Martin’s body until the seas calmed, the townspeople were left with the nettlesome question of what to do with his body. It was finally decided that the fishmonger, who had the island’s largest stockpile of ice, would keep him cool in the back of his shop, among salmon and cod and other things. Which, like Martin, had been pulled from the sea.

  I was under strict instructions from my father not to leave the Priest Hole, but I was also under instructions to report any strange goings-on to Miss Peregrine—and if a suspicious death didn’t qualify, nothing did. So that night I feigned a flulike illness and locked myself in my room, then slipped out the window and climbed down a drainpipe to the ground. No one else was foolish enough to be outside, so I ran straight down the main path without fear of being spotted, the hood of my jacket scrunched tight against the whipping rain.

  When I got to the children’s home, Miss Peregrine took one look at me and knew something was wrong. “What’s happened?” she said, her bloodshot eyes ranging over me.

  I told her everything, all the sketchy facts and rumors I’d overheard, and she blanched. She hurried me into the sitting room, where in a panic she gathered all the kids she could find and then stomped off to find a few who had ignored her shouts. The rest were left to stand around, anxious and confused.

  Emma and Millard cornered me. “What’s she in such a tiff about?” Millard asked.

  I quietly told them about Martin. Millard sucked in his breath and Emma crossed her arms, looking worried.

  “Is it really that bad?” I said. “I mean, it can’t have been hollows. They only hunt peculiars, right?”

  Emma groaned. “Do you want to tell him, or shall I?”

  “Hollows vastly prefer peculiars over common folk,” Millard explained, “but they’ll eat just about anything to sustain themselves, so long as it’s fresh and meaty.”

  “It’s one of the ways you know there might be a hollow hanging about,” said Emma. “The bodies pile up. That’s why they’re mostly nomads. If they didn’t move from place to place so often, they’d be simple to track down.”

  “How often?” I asked, a shiver tracing my spine. “Do they need to eat, I mean?”

  “Oh, pretty often,” said Millard. “Arranging the hollows’ meals is what wights spend most of their time doing. They look for peculiars when they can, but a gobsmacking portion of their energy and effort is spent tracking down common victims for the hollows, animal and human, and then hiding the mess.” His tone was academic, as if discussing the breeding patterns of a mildly interesting species of rodent.

  “But don’t the wights get caught?” I said. “I mean, if they’re helping murder people, you’d think—”

  “Some do,” Emma said. “Wager you’ve heard of a few, if you follow the news. There was one fellow, they found him with human heads in the icebox and gibletty goodies in a stock pot over a low boil, like he was making Christmas dinner. In your time this wouldn’t have been so very long ago.”

  I remembered—vaguely—a sensationalized late-night TV special about a cannibalistic serial killer from Milwaukee who’d been apprehended in similarly gruesome circumstances.

  “You mean … Jeffrey Dahmer?”

  “I believe that was the gentleman’s name, yes,” said Millard. “Fascinating case. Seems he never lost his taste for the fresh stuff, though he’d not been a hollow for many years.”

  “I thought you guys weren’t supposed to know about the future,” I said.

  Emma flashed a canny smile. “The bird only keeps good things about the future to herself, but you can bet we hear all the brown-trouser bits.”

  Then Miss Peregrine returned, pulling Enoch and Horace behind her by their shirtsleeves. Everyone came to attention.

  “We’ve just had word of a new threat,” she announced, giving me an appreciative nod. “A man outside our loop has died under suspicious circumstances. We can’t be certain of the cause or whether it re
presents a true threat to our security, but we must conduct ourselves as if it did. Until further notice, no one may leave the house, not even to collect vegetables or bring in a goose for the evening meal.”

  A collective groan arose, over which Miss Peregrine raised her voice. “This has been a challenging few days for us all. I beg your continued patience.”

  Hands shot up around the room, but she rebuffed all questions and marched off to secure the doors. I ran after her in a panic. If there really was something dangerous on the island, it might kill me the minute I set foot outside the loop. But if I stayed here, I’d be leaving my father defenseless, not to mention worried sick about me. Somehow, that seemed even worse.

  “I need to go,” I said, catching up to Miss Peregrine.

  She pulled me into an empty room and closed the door. “You will keep your voice down,” she commanded, “and you will respect my rules. What I said applies to you as well. No one leaves this house.”

  “But—”

  “Thus far I have allowed you an unprecedented measure of autonomy to come and go as you please, out of respect for your unique position. But you may have already been followed here, and that puts my wards’ lives in jeopardy. I will not permit you to endanger them—or yourself—any further.”

  “Don’t you understand?” I said angrily. “Boats aren’t running. Those people in town are stuck. My father is stuck. If there really is a wight, and it’s who I think it is, he and my dad have almost gotten into one fight already. If he just fed a total stranger to a hollow, who do you think he’s going after next?”

  Her face was like stone. “The welfare of the townspeople is none of my concern,” she said. “I won’t endanger my wards. Not for anyone.”

  “It isn’t just townspeople. It’s my father. Do you really think a couple of locked doors will stop me from going?”

  “Perhaps not. But if you insist on leaving here, then I insist you never return.”

 
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