Miss peregrines home for.., p.21
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.21
 

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
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I was so shocked I had to laugh. “But you need me,” I said.

  “Yes, we do,” she replied. “We do very much.”

  * * *

  I stormed upstairs to Emma’s room. Inside was a tableau of frustration that might’ve been straight out of Norman Rockwell, if Norman Rockwell had painted people doing hard time in jail. Bronwyn stared woodenly out the window. Enoch sat on the floor, whittling a piece of hard clay. Emma was perched on the edge of her bed, elbows on knees, tearing sheets of paper from a notebook and igniting them between her fingers.

  “You’re back!” she said when I came in.

  “I never left,” I replied. “Miss Peregrine wouldn’t let me.” Everyone listened as I explained my dilemma. “I’m banished if I try to leave.”

  Emma’s entire notebook ignited. “She can’t do that!” she cried, oblivious to the flames licking her hand.

  “She can do what she likes,” said Bronwyn. “She’s the Bird.”

  Emma threw down her book and stamped out the fire.

  “I just came to tell you I’m going, whether she wants me to or not. I won’t be held prisoner, and I won’t bury my head in the sand while my own father might be in real danger.”

  “Then I’m coming with you,” Emma said.

  “You ain’t serious,” replied Bronwyn.

  “I am.”

  “What you are is three-quarters stupid,” said Enoch. “You’ll turn into a wrinkled old prune, and for what? Him?”

  “I won’t,” said Emma. “You’ve got to be out of the loop for hours and hours before time starts to catch up with you, and it won’t take nearly that long, will it, Jacob?”

  “It’s a bad idea,” I said.

  “What’s a bad idea?” said Enoch. “She don’t even know what she’s risking her life to do.”

  “Headmistress won’t like it,” said Bronwyn, stating the obvious. “She’ll kill us, Em.”

  Emma stood up and shut the door. “She won’t kill us,” she said, “those things will. And if they don’t, living like this might just be worse than dying. The Bird’s got us cooped up so tight we can hardly breathe, and all because she doesn’t have the spleen to face whatever’s out there!”

  “Or not out there,” said Millard, who I hadn’t realized was in the room with us.

  “But she won’t like it,” Bronwyn repeated.

  Emma took a combative step toward her friend. “How long can you hide under the hem of that woman’s skirt?”

  “Have you already forgotten what happened to Miss Avocet?” said Millard. “It was only when her wards left the loop that they were killed and Miss Bunting kidnapped. If they’d only stayed put, nothing bad would’ve happened.”

  “Nothing bad?” Emma said dubiously. “Yes, it’s true that hollows can’t go through loops. But wights can, which is just how those kids were tricked into leaving. Should we sit on our bums and wait for them to come through our front door? What if rather than clever disguises, this time they bring guns?”

  “That’s what I’d do,” Enoch said. “Wait till everyone’s asleep and then slide down the chimney like Santa Claus and BLAM!” He fired an imaginary pistol at Emma’s pillow. “Brains on the wall.”

  “Thank you for that,” Millard said, sighing.

  “We’ve got to hit them before they know we know they’re there,” said Emma, “while we’ve still got the element of surprise.”

  “But we don’t know they’re there!” said Millard.

  “We’ll find out.”

  “And how do you propose to do that? Wander around until you see a hollow? What then? ‘Excuse me, we were wondering what your intentions might be, vis à vis eating us.’ ”

  “We’ve got Jacob,” said Bronwyn. “He can see them.”

  I felt my throat tighten, aware that if this hunting party formed, I would be in some way responsible for everyone’s safety.

  “I’ve only ever seen one,” I warned them. “So I wouldn’t exactly call myself an expert.”

  “And if he shouldn’t happen to see one?” said Millard. “It could either mean that there are none to be seen or that they’re hiding. You’d still be clueless, as you so clearly are now.”

  Furrowed brows all around. Millard had a point.

  “Well, it appears that logic has prevailed yet again,” he said. “I’m off to fetch some porridge for supper, if any of you would-be mutineers would like to join me.”

  The bedsprings creaked as he got up and moved toward the door. But before he could leave, Enoch leapt to his feet and cried, “I’ve got it!”

  Millard stopped. “Got what?”

  Enoch turned to me. “The bloke who may or may not have been eaten by a hollow—do you know where they’re keeping him?”

  “At the fishmonger’s.”

  He rubbed his hands together. “Then I know how we can be sure.”

  “And how’s that?” said Millard.

  “We’ll ask him.”

  * * *

  An expeditionary team was assembled. Joining me would be Emma, who flatly refused to let me go alone, Bronwyn, who was loath to anger Miss Peregrine but insisted that we needed her protection, and Enoch, whose plan we were to carry out. Millard, whose invisibility might have come in handy, would have no part of it, and he had to be bribed just to keep from ratting us out.

  “If we all go,” Emma reasoned, “the Bird won’t be able to banish Jacob. She’ll have to banish all four of us.”

  “But I don’t want to be banished!” said Bronwyn.

  “She’d never do it, Wyn. That’s the point. And if we can make it back before lights-out, she may not even realize we were gone.”

  I had my doubts about that, but we all agreed it was worth a shot.

  It went down like a jailbreak. After dinner, when the house was at its most chaotic and Miss Peregrine at her most distracted, Emma pretended to head for the sitting room and I for the study. We met a few minutes later at the end of the upstairs hallway, where a rectangle of ceiling pulled down to reveal a ladder. Emma climbed it and I followed, pulling it closed after us, and we found ourselves in a tiny, dark attic space. At one end was a vent, easily unscrewed, that led out onto a flat section of roof.

  We stepped into the night air to find the others already waiting. Bronwyn gave us each a crushing hug and handed out black rain slickers she’d snagged, which I’d suggested we wear to provide some measure of protection from the storm raging outside the loop. I was about to ask how we were planning to reach the ground when I saw Olive float into view past the edge of the roof.

  “Who’s keen for a game of parachute?” she said, smiling broadly. She was barefoot and wore a rope knotted around her waist. Curious what she was attached to, I peeked over the roof to see Fiona, rope in hand, hanging out a window and waving up at me. Apparently, we had accomplices.

  “You first,” Enoch barked.

  “Me?” I said, backing nervously away from the edge.

  “Grab hold of Olive and jump,” Emma said.

  “I don’t remember this plan involving me shattering my pelvis.”

  “You won’t, dummy, if you just hang on to Olive. It’s great fun. We’ve done it loads of times.” She thought for a moment, “Well, one time.”

  There seemed to be no alternative, so I steeled myself and approached the roof’s edge. “Don’t be frightened!” Olive said.

  “Easy for you to say,” I replied. “You can’t fall.”

  She reached out her arms and bear-hugged me and I hugged her back, and she whispered, “Okay, go.” I closed my eyes and stepped into the void. Instead of the drop I’d feared, we drifted slowly to the ground like a balloon leaking helium.

  “That was fun,” Olive said. “Now let go!”

  I did, and she went rocketing back up to the roof, saying “Wheeeee!” all the way. The others shushed her and then, one after another, they hugged her and floated down to join me. When we were all together we began sneaking toward the moon-capped woods, Fiona and Olive waving behind us. Maybe it
was my imagination, but the breeze-blown topiary creatures seemed to wave at us, too, with Adam nodding a somber farewell.

  * * *

  When we stopped at the bog’s edge to catch our breath, Enoch reached into his bulging coat and handed out packages wrapped in cheesecloth. “Take these,” he said. “I ain’t carryin’ em all.”

  “What are they?” asked Bronwyn, undoing the cloth to reveal a hunk of brownish meat with little tubes shunting out of it. “Ugh, it stinks!” she cried, holding it away from her.

  “Calm down, it’s only a sheep heart,” he said, thrusting something of roughly the same dimensions into my hands. It stank of formaldehyde and, even through the cloth, felt unpleasantly moist.

  “I’ll chuck my guts if I have to carry this,” Bronwyn said.

  “I’d like to see that,” Enoch grumbled, sounding offended. “Stash it in your slicker and let’s get on with it.”

  We followed the hidden ribbon of solid ground through the bog. I’d been over it so many times now, I’d almost forgotten how dangerous it could be, how many lives it had swallowed over the centuries. Stepping onto the cairn mound, I told everyone to button up their coats.

  “What if we see someone?” asked Enoch.

  “Just act normal,” I said. “I’ll tell them you’re my friends from America.”

  “What if we see a wight?” asked Bronwyn.

  “Run.”

  “And if Jacob sees a hollow?”

  “In that case,” Emma said, “run like the devil’s after you.”

  One by one we ducked into the cairn, disappearing from that calm summer night. All was quiet until we reached the end chamber, and then the air pressure dropped and the temperature fell and the storm screamed into full-throated being. We spun toward the sound, rattled, and for a moment just stood listening as it seethed and howled at the mouth of the tunnel. It sounded like a caged animal that had just been shown its dinner. There was nothing to do but offer ourselves up to it.

  We fell to our knees and crawled into what seemed like a black hole, the stars lost behind a mountain of thunderheads, whipping rain and freezing wind rifling through our coats, wires of lightning bleaching us bone white and making the dark that followed seem darker still. Emma tried to make a flame but she looked like a broken cigarette lighter, every sparking flick of her wrist hissing out before it could catch, so we shrugged up our coats and ran bent against the gale and the swollen bog that sucked at our legs, navigating as much by memory as by sight.

  In the town, rain drummed on every door and window, but everyone stayed locked and shuttered inside their cottages as we ran unnoticed through the flooding streets, past scattered roof tiles torn away by the wind, past a single rain-blinded sheep lost and crying, past a tipped outhouse disgorging itself into the road, to the fishmonger’s shop. The door was locked, but with two thudding kicks Bronwyn flung it in. Drying her hand inside her coat, Emma was finally able to make a flame. As wide-eyed sturgeon stared from glass cases, I led us into the shop, around the counter where Dylan spent his days mumbling curses and scaling fish, through a rust-pocked door. On the other side was a little icehouse, just a lean- to shed floored with dirt and roofed with tin, its walls made from rough-cut planks, rain weeping through where they had shivered apart like bad teeth. Crowding the room were a dozen rectangular troughs raised on saw-horses and filled with ice.

  “Which one’s he in?” Enoch asked.

  “I don’t know,” I said.

  Emma shone her flame around as we walked among the troughs, trying to guess which might hold more than just the corpses of fish—but they all looked the same, just lidless coffins of ice. We would have to search every one until we found him.

  “Not me,” Bronwyn said, “I don’t want to see him. I don’t like dead things.”

  “Neither do I, but we have to,” said Emma. “We’re all in this together.”

  Each of us chose a trough and dug into it like a dog excavating a prized bed of flowers, our cupped hands scooping mounds of ice onto the floor. I’d emptied half of one and was losing feeling in my fingers when I heard Bronwyn shriek. I turned to see her stumble away from a trough, her hands across her mouth.

  We crowded around to see what she’d uncovered. Jutting from the ice was a frozen, hairy-knuckled hand. “I daresay you found our man,” Enoch said, and through split fingers the rest of us watched as he scraped away more ice, slowly revealing an arm, then a torso, and finally Martin’s entire wrecked body.

  It was an awful sight. His limbs were twisted in improbable directions. His trunk had been scissored open and emptied out, ice filling the cavity where his vitals had been. When his face appeared, there was a collective intake of breath. Half was a purple contusion that hung in strips like a shredded mask. The other was just undamaged enough to recognize him by: a jaw stippled with beard, a jig-sawed section of cheek and brow, and one green eye, filmed over and gazing emptily. He wore only boxers and ragged scraps of a terrycloth robe. There was no way he’d walked by himself out to the cliffs at night dressed like that. Someone—or something—had dragged him there.

  “He’s pretty far gone,” said Enoch, appraising Martin as a surgeon might assess an all-but-hopeless patient. “I’m telling you now, this might not work.”

  “We got to try,” Bronwyn said, stepping bravely to the trough with the rest of us. “We come all this way, we at least got to try.”

  Enoch opened his slicker and pulled one of the wrapped hearts from an interior pocket. It looked like a maroon catcher’s mitt folded in on itself. “If he wakes up,” Enoch said, “he ain’t gonna be happy. So just stand back and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

  All of us took a generous step back except Enoch, who bellied up to the trough and plunged his arm into the ice that filled Martin’s chest, swirling it around like he was fishing for a can of soda in a cooler. After a moment he seemed to latch onto something, and with his other hand he raised the sheep heart above his head.

  A sudden convulsion passed through Enoch’s body and the sheep heart started to beat, spraying out a fine mist of bloody pickling solution. Enoch took fast, shallow breaths. He seemed to be channeling something. I studied Martin’s body for any hint of movement, but he lay still.

  Gradually the heart in Enoch’s hand began to slow and shrink, its color fading to a blackish gray, like meat left too long in the freezer. Enoch threw it on the ground and thrust his empty hand at me. I pulled out the heart I’d been keeping in my pocket and gave it to him. He repeated the same process, the heart pumping and sputtering for a while before faltering like the last one. Then he did it a third time, using the heart he’d given to Emma.

  Bronwyn’s heart was the only one left—Enoch’s last chance. His face took on a new intensity as he raised it above Martin’s rude coffin, squeezing it like he meant to drive his fingers through. As the heart began to shake and tremble like an overcranked motor, Enoch shouted, “Rise up, dead man. Rise up!”

  I saw a flicker of movement. Something had shifted beneath the ice. I leaned as close as I could stand to, watching for any sign of life. For a long moment there was nothing, but then the body wrenched as suddenly and forcefully as if it had been shocked with a thousand volts. Emma screamed, and we all jumped back. When I lowered my arms to look again, Martin’s head had turned in my direction, one cataracted eye wheeling crazily before fixing, it seemed, on me.

  “He sees you!” Enoch cried.

  I leaned in. The dead man smelled of turned earth and brine and something worse. Ice fell away from his hand, which rose up to tremble in the air for a moment, afflicted and blue, before coming to rest on my arm. I fought the urge to throw it off.

  His lips fell apart and his jaw hinged open. I bent down to hear him, but there was nothing to hear. Of course there isn’t, I thought, his lungs have burst—but then a tiny sound leaked out, and I leaned closer, my ear almost to his freezing lips. I thought, strangely, of the rain gutter by my house, where if you put your head to the bars and wa
it for a break in traffic, you can just make out the whisper of an underground stream, buried when the town was first built but still flowing, imprisoned in a world a permanent night.

  The others crowded around, but I was the only one who could hear the dead man. The first thing he said was my name.

  “Jacob.”

  Fear shot through me. “Yes.”

  “I was dead.” The words came slowly, dripping like molasses. He corrected himself. “Am dead.”

  “Tell me what happened,” I said. “Can you remember?”

  There was a pause. The wind whistled through the gaps in the walls. He said something and I missed it.

  “Say it again. Please, Martin.”

  “He killed me,” the dead man whispered.

  “Who.”

  “My old man.”

  “You mean Oggie? Your uncle?”

  “My old man,” he said again. “He got big. And strong, so strong.”

  “Who did, Martin?”

  His eye closed, and I feared he was gone for good. I looked at Enoch. He nodded. The heart in his hand was still beating.

  Martin’s eye flicked beneath its lid. He began to speak again, slowly but evenly, as if reciting something. “For a hundred generations he slept, curled like a fetus in the earth’s mysterious womb, digested by roots, fermenting in the dark, summer fruits canned and forgotten in the larder until a farmer’s spade bore him out, rough midwife to a strange harvest.”

  Martin paused, his lips trembling, and in the brief silence Emma looked at me and whispered, “What’s he saying?”

  “I don’t know,” I said. “But it sounds like a poem.”

  He continued, his voice wavering but loud enough now that everyone could hear—“Blackly he reposes, tender face the color of soot, withered limbs like veins of coal, feet lumps of driftwood hung with shriveled grapes”—and finally I recognized the poem. It was the one he’d written about the bog boy.

  “Oh Jacob, I took such good careful care of him!” he said. “Dusted the glass and changed the soil and made him a home—like my own big bruised baby. I took such careful care, but—” He began to shake, and a tear ran down his cheek and froze there. “But he killed me.”

 
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