Miss peregrines home for.., p.24
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.24

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 
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  “Four’s enough,” Emma said. “Hope you’re all strong swimmers.”

  There was no time for second thoughts or long goodbyes. The others wished us luck, and we were on our way.

  We shed our black coats and loped through the grass, doubled-over like commandos, until we came to the path that led to the beach. We slid down on our behinds, little avalanches of sand pouring around our feet and down our pants.

  Suddenly, there was a noise like fifty chainsaws over our heads, and we ducked as a plane roared by, the wind whipping our hair and blowing up a sandstorm. I clenched my teeth, waiting for a bomb blast to tear us apart. None came.

  We kept moving. When we hit the beach, Emma gathered us in a tight huddle.

  “There’s a shipwreck between here and the lighthouse,” she said. “Follow me out to it. Stay low in the water. Don’t let him see you. When we reach the wreck, we’ll look for our man and decide what’s next.”

  “Let’s get our ymbrynes back,” Bronwyn said.

  We crawled down to the surf and slid into the cold water on our bellies. It was easy going at first, but the farther we swam from shore, the more the current tried to push us back. Another plane buzzed overhead, kicking up a stinging spray of water.

  We were breathing hard by the time we reached the shipwreck. Clinging to its rusted hull, just our heads poking out of the water, we stared at the lighthouse and the barren little island that anchored it, but saw no sign of my wayward therapist. A full moon hovered low in the sky, breaking through reefs of bomb smoke now and then to shine like the lighthouse’s ghostly double.

  We pushed ourselves along the wreck until we reached the end, just a fifty-yard swim in open water to the lighthouse rocks.

  “Here’s what I reckon we should do,” Emma said. “He’s seen how strong Wyn is, so she’s in the most danger. Jacob and I find Golan and get his attention while Wyn sneaks up from behind and gives him a belter over the head. Meantime, Millard makes a grab for the birdcage. Any objections?”

  As if in answer, a shot rang out. At first we didn’t realize what it was—it didn’t sound like the gunshots we’d been hearing, distant and powerful. This was small caliber—a pop rather than a bang—and it wasn’t until we heard a second one, accompanied by a nearby splash, that we knew it was Golan.

  “Fall back!” Emma shouted, and we stood out of the water and sprinted across the hull until it dropped out from beneath us, then dove into the open water beyond it. A moment later we all came up in a cluster, panting for air.

  “So much for getting the drop on him!” Millard said.

  Golan had stopped shooting, but we could see him standing guard by the lighthouse door, gun in hand.

  “He may be an evil bastard, but he ain’t stupid,” Bronwyn said. “He knew we’d come after him.”

  “Not now we can’t!” Emma said, slapping the water. “He’ll shoot us to bits!”

  Millard stepped up onto the wreck. “He can’t shoot what he can’t see. I’ll go.”

  “You’re not invisible in the ocean, dummy,” Emma said, and it was true—a torso-shaped negative space bobbed in the water where he stood.

  “More than you are,” he replied. “Anyhow, I followed him all the way across the island and he was none the wiser. I think I can manage a few hundred meters more.”

  It was difficult to argue, since our only remaining options were either giving up or running into a hail of gunfire.

  “Fine,” Emma said. “If you really think you can make it.”

  “Someone’s got to be the hero,” he replied, and walked off across the hull.

  “Famous last words,” I muttered.

  In the smoky distance, I saw Golan in the lighthouse doorway kneel down and take aim, leveling his arm across a railing.

  “Look out!” I shouted, but it was too late.

  A shot rang out. Millard screamed.

  We all clambered onto the wreck and raced toward him. I felt absolutely certain I was about to be shot, and for a moment I thought the splashes of our feet in the water were bullets raining down on us. But then the shooting stopped—reloading, I thought—and we had a brief window of time.

  Millard was kneeling in the water, dazed, blood running down his torso. For the first time I could see the true shape of his body, painted red.

  Emma took him by the arm. “Millard! Are you all right? Say something!”

  “I must apologize,” he said. “It seems I’ve gone and gotten myself shot.”

  “We have to stop the bleeding!” said Emma. “We’ve got to take him back to shore!”

  “Nonsense,” Millard said. “That man will never let you get this close to him again. Turn back now, and we’ll certainly lose Miss Peregrine.”

  More shots rang out. I felt a bullet zip past my ear.

  “This way!” Emma shouted. “Dive!”

  I didn’t know what she meant at first—we were a hundred feet from the end of the wreck—but then I saw what she was running toward. It was the black hole in the hull, the door to the cargo hold.

  Bronwyn and I lifted Millard and ran after her. Metal slugs clanged into the hull around us. It sounded like someone kicking a trash can.

  “Hold your breath,” I told Millard, and we came to the hold and dove in feet-first.

  We pulled ourselves down the ladder a few rungs and hung there. I tried to keep my eyes open but the saltwater stung too much. I could taste Millard’s blood in the water.

  Emma handed me the breathing tube, and we passed it among us. I was winded from running, and the single breath it allowed me every few seconds wasn’t enough. My lungs hurt, and I began to feel light-headed.

  Someone tugged at my shirt. Come up. I pulled myself slowly up the ladder, and then Bronwyn, Emma and I broke the surface just enough to breathe and talk while Millard stayed safe a few feet below, the tube all to himself.

  We spoke in whispers and kept our eyes on the lighthouse.

  “We can’t stay here,” Emma said. “Millard will bleed to death.”

  “It could take twenty minutes to get him back to shore,” I said. “He could just as easily die on the way.”

  “I don’t know what else to do!”

  “The lighthouse is close,” Bronwyn said. “We’ll take him there.”

  “Then Golan will make us all bleed to death!” I said.

  “No, he won’t,” replied Bronwyn.

  “Why not? Are you bullet-proof?”

  “Maybe,” Bronwyn replied mysteriously, then took a breath and disappeared down the ladder.

  “What’s she talking about?” I said.

  Emma looked worried. “I haven’t a clue. But whatever it is, she’d better hurry.” I looked down to see what Bronwyn was doing but instead caught a glimpse of Millard on the ladder below us, surrounded by curious flashlight fish. Then I felt the hull vibrate against my feet, and a moment later Bronwyn surfaced holding a rectangular piece of metal about six feet by four, with a riveted round hole in the top. She had wrenched the cargo hold’s door from its hinges.

  “And what are you going to do with that?” Emma said.

  “Go to the lighthouse,” she replied. Then she stood up and held the door in front of her.

  “Wyn, he’ll shoot you!” Emma cried, and then a shot rang out—and caromed right off the door.

  “That’s amazing!” I said. “It’s a shield!”

  Emma laughed. “Wyn, you’re a genius!”

  “Millard can ride my back,” she said. “The rest of you, fall in behind.”

  Emma brought Millard out of the water and hung his arms around Bronwyn’s neck. “It’s magnificent down there,” he said. “Emma, why did you never tell me about the angels?”

  “What angels?”

  “The lovely green angels who live just below.” He was shivering, his voice dreamy. “They kindly offered to take me to heaven.”

  “No one’s going to heaven just yet,” Emma said, looking worried. “You just hang on to Bronwyn, all right?”

/>   “Very well,” he said vacantly.

  Emma stood behind Millard, pressing him into Bronwyn’s back so he wouldn’t slide off. I stood behind Emma, taking up the rear of our strange little conga line, and we began to plod forward across the wreck toward the lighthouse.

  We were a big target, and right away Golan began to empty his gun at us. The sound of his bullets bouncing off the door was deafening—but somehow reassuring—but after about a dozen shots he stopped. I wasn’t optimistic enough to think he’d run out of bullets, though.

  Reaching the end of the wreck, Bronwyn guided us carefully into open water, always keeping the massive door held out in front of us. Our conga line became a chain of dog-paddlers swimming in a knot behind her. Emma talked to Millard as we paddled, making him answer questions so he wouldn’t drift into unconsciousness.

  “Millard! Who’s the prime minister?”

  “Winston Churchhill,” he said. “Have you gone daft?”

  “What’s the capital of Burma?”

  “Lord, I’ve no idea. Rangoon.”

  “Good! When’s your birthday?”

  “Will you quit shouting and let me bleed in peace!”

  It didn’t take long to cross the short distance between the wreck and the lighthouse. As Bronwyn shouldered our shield and climbed onto the rocks, Golan fired a few more shots, and their impact threw her off balance. As we cowered behind her, she wobbled and nearly slipped backward off the rocks, which between her weight and the door’s would’ve crushed us all. Emma planted her hands on the small of Bronwyn’s back and pushed, and finally both Bronwyn and the door tottered forward onto dry land. We scrambled after her in a pack, shivering in the crisp night air.

  Fifty yards across at its widest, the lighthouse rocks were technically a tiny island. At the lighthouse’s rusted base were a dozen stone steps leading to an open door, where Golan stood with his pistol aimed squarely in our direction.

  I risked a peek through the porthole. He held a small cage in one hand, and inside were two flapping birds mashed so close together I could hardly tell one from the other.

  A shot whizzed past and I ducked.

  “Come any closer and I’ll shoot them both!” Golan shouted, rattling the cage.

  “He’s lying,” I said. “He needs them.”

  “You don’t know that,” said Emma. “He’s a madman, after all.”

  “Well we can’t just do nothing.”

  “Rush him!” Bronwyn said. “He won’t know what to do. But if it’s going to work we’ve got to go NOW!”

  And before we had a chance to weigh in, Bronwyn was running toward the lighthouse. We had no choice but to follow—she was carrying our protection, after all—and a moment later bullets were clanging against the door and chipping at the rocks around our feet.

  It was like hanging from the back of a speeding train. Bronwyn was terrifying: She bellowed like a barbarian, the veins in her neck bulging, with Millard’s blood smeared all over her arms and back. I was very glad, in that moment, not to be on the other side of the door.

  As we neared the lighthouse, Bronwyn shouted, “Get behind the wall!” Emma and I grabbed Millard and cut left to take cover behind the far side of the lighthouse. As we ran, I saw Bronwyn lift the door above her head and hurl it toward Golan.

  There was a thunderous crash quickly followed by a scream, and moments later Bronwyn joined us behind the wall, flushed and panting.

  “I think I hit him!” she said excitedly.

  “What about the birds?” Emma said. “Did you even think about them?”

  “He dropped ’em. They’re fine.”

  “Well, you might’ve asked us before you went berserk and risked all our lives!” Emma cried.

  “Quiet,” I hissed. We heard the faint sound of creaking metal. “What is that?”

  “He’s climbing the stairs,” Emma replied.

  “You’d better get after him,” croaked Millard. We looked at him, surprised. He was slumped against the wall.

  “Not before we take care of you,” I said. “Who knows how to make a tourniquet?”

  Bronwyn reached down and tore the leg of her pants. “I do,” she said. “I’ll stop his bleeding; you get the wight. I knocked him pretty good, but not good enough. Don’t give him a chance to get his wind back.”

  I turned to Emma. “You up for this?”

  “If it means I get to melt that wight’s face off,” she said, little arcs of flame pulsing between her hands, “then absolutely.”

  * * *

  Emma and I clambered over the ship’s door, which lay bent on the steps where it had landed, and entered the lighthouse. The building consisted mainly of one narrow and profoundly vertical room—a giant stairwell, essentially—dominated by a skeletal staircase that corkscrewed from the floor to a stone landing, more than a hundred feet up. We could hear Golan’s footsteps as he bounded up the stairs, but it was too dark to tell how far he was from the top.

  “Can you see him?” I said, peering up the stairwell’s dizzying height.

  My answer was a gunshot ricocheting off a wall nearby, followed by another that slammed into the floor at my feet. I jumped back, heart hammering.

  “Over here!” Emma cried. She grabbed my arm and pulled me farther inside, to the one place Golan’s gunshots couldn’t reach us—directly under the stairs.

  We climbed a few steps, which were already swaying like a boat in bad weather. “These are frightful!” Emma exclaimed, her fingers white-knuckled as they gripped the rail. “Even if we make it to the top without falling, he’ll only shoot us!”

  “If we can’t go up,” I said, “maybe we can bring him down.” I began to rock back and forth where I stood, yanking on the railing and stomping my feet, sending shockwaves up the stairs. Emma looked at me like I was nuts for a second, but then got the idea and began to stomp and sway along with me. Pretty soon the staircase was rocking like crazy.

  “What if the whole thing comes down?” Emma shouted.

  “Let’s hope it doesn’t!”

  We shook harder. Screws and bolts began to rain down. The rail was lurching so violently, I could hardly keep hold of it. I heard Golan scream a spectacular array of curses, and then something clattered down the stairs, landing nearby.

  The first thing I thought was, Oh God, what if that was the birdcage—and I dashed down the stairs past Emma and ran out on the floor to check.

  “What are you doing?!” Emma shouted. “He’ll shoot you!”

  “No, he won’t!” I said, holding up Golan’s handgun in triumph. It felt warm from all the firing he’d done and heavy in my hand, and I had no idea if it still had bullets or even how, in the near darkness, to check. I tried in vain to remember something useful from the few shooting lessons Grandpa had been allowed to give me, but finally I just ran back up the steps to Emma.

  “He’s trapped at the top,” I said. “We’ve got to take it slow, try to reason with him, or who knows what he’ll do to the birds.”

  “I’ll reason him right over the side,” Emma replied through her teeth.

  We began to climb. The staircase swayed terribly and was so narrow that we could only proceed in single-file, crouching so our heads wouldn’t hit the steps above. I prayed that none of the fasteners we’d shaken loose had secured anything crucial.

  We slowed as we neared the top. I didn’t dare look down; there were only my feet on the steps, my hand sliding along the shivering rail and my other hand holding the gun. Nothing else existed.

  I steeled myself for a surprise attack, but none came. The stairs ended at an opening in the stone landing above our heads, through which I could feel the snapping chill of night air and hear the whistle of wind. I stuck the gun through, followed by my head. I was tense and ready to fight, but I didn’t see Golan. On one side of me spun the massive light, housed behind thick glass—this close it was blinding, forcing me to shut my eyes as it swung past—and on the other side was a spindly rail. Beyond that was a void: ten storie
s of empty air and then rocks and churning sea.

  I stepped onto the narrow walkway and turned to give Emma a hand up. We stood with our backs pressed again the lamp’s warm housing and our fronts to the wind’s chill. “The Bird’s close,” Emma whispered. “I can feel her.”

  She flicked her wrist and a ball of angry red flame sprang to life. Something about its color and intensity made it clear that this time she hadn’t summoned a light, but a weapon.

  “We should split up,” I said. “You go around one side and I’ll take the other. That way he won’t be able to sneak past us.”

  “I’m scared, Jacob.”

  “Me, too. But he’s hurt, and we have his gun.”

  She nodded and touched my arm, then turned away.

  I circled the lamp slowly, clenching the maybe-loaded gun, and gradually the view around the other side began to peel back.

  I found Golan sitting on his haunches with his head down and his back against the railing, the birdcage between his knees. He was bleeding badly from a cut on the bridge of his nose, rivulets of red streaking his face like tears.

  Clipped to the bars of the cage was a small red light. Every few seconds it blinked.

  I took another step forward, and he raised his head to look at me. His face was a stubble of caked blood, his one white eye shot through with red, spit flecking the corners of his mouth.

  He rose unsteadily, the cage in one hand.

  “Put it down.”

  He bent over as if to comply but faked away from me and tried to run. I shouted and gave chase, but as soon as he disappeared around the lamp housing I saw the glow of Emma’s fire flare across the concrete. Golan came howling back toward me, his hair smoking and one arm covering his face.

  “Stop!” I screamed at him, and he realized he was trapped. He raised the cage, shielding himself, and gave it a vicious shake. The birds screeched and nipped at his hand through the bars.

  “Is this what you want?” Golan shouted. “Go ahead, burn me! The birds will burn, too! Shoot me and I’ll throw them over the side!”

  “Not if I shoot you in the head!”

  He laughed. “You couldn’t fire a gun if you wanted to. You forget, I’m intimately familiar with your poor, fragile psyche. It’d give you nightmares.”

 
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