Miss peregrines home for.., p.25
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.25

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 
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  I tried to imagine it: curling my finger around the trigger and squeezing; the recoil and the awful report. What was so hard about that? Why did my hand shake just thinking about it? How many wights had my grandfather killed? Dozens? Hundreds? If he were here instead of me, Golan would be dead already, laid out while he’d been squatting against the rail in a daze. It was an opportunity I’d already wasted; a split-second of gutless indecision that might’ve cost the ymbryes their lives.

  The giant lamp spun past, blasting us with light, turning us into glowing white cutouts. Golan, who was facing it, grimaced and looked away. Another wasted opportunity, I thought.

  “Just put it down and come with us,” I said. “Nobody else has to get hurt.”

  “I don’t know,” Emma said. “If Millard doesn’t make it, I might reconsider that.”

  “You want to kill me?” Golan said. “Fine, get it over with. But you’ll only be delaying the inevitable, not to mention making things worse for yourselves. We know how to find you now. More like me are coming, and I can guarantee the collateral damage they do will make what I did to your friend seem downright charitable.”

  “Get it over with?” Emma said, her flame sending a little pulse of sparks skyward. “Who said it would be quick?”

  “I told you, I’ll kill them,” he said, drawing the cage to his chest.

  She took a step toward him. “I’m eighty-eight years old,” she said. “Do I look like I need a pair of babysitters?” Her expression was steely, unreadable. “I can’t tell you how long we’ve been dying to get out from under that woman’s wing. I swear, you’d be doing us a favor.”

  Golan swiveled his head back and forth, nervously sizing us up. Is she serious? For a moment he seemed genuinely frightened, but then he said, “You’re full of shit.”

  Emma rubbed her palms together and pulled them slowly apart, drawing out a noose of flame. “Let’s find out.”

  I wasn’t sure how far Emma would take this, but I had to step in before the birds went up in flames or were sent tumbling over the rail.

  “Tell us what you want with those ymbrynes, and maybe she’ll go easy on you,” I said.

  “We only want to finish what we started,” Golan said. “That’s all we’ve ever wanted.”

  “You mean the experiment,” Emma said. “You tried it once, and look what happened. You turned yourselves into monsters!”

  “Yes,” he said, “but what an unchallenging life it would be if we always got things right on the first go.” He smiled. “This time we’ll be harnessing the talents of all the world’s best time manipulators, like these two ladies here. We won’t fail again. We’ve had a hundred years to figure out what went wrong. Turns out all we needed was a bigger reaction!”

  “A bigger reaction?” I said. “Last time you blew up half of Siberia!”

  “If you must fail,” he said grandly, “fail spectacularly!”

  I remembered Horace’s prophetic dream of ash clouds and scorched earth, and I realized what he’d been seeing. If the wights and hollows failed again, this time they’d destroy a lot more than five hundred miles of empty forest. And if they succeeded, and turned themselves into the deathless demigods they’d always dreamed of becoming … I shuddered to imagine it. Living under them would be a hell all its own.

  The light came around and blinded Golan again—I tensed, ready to lunge—but the moment sped by too quickly.

  “It doesn’t matter,” Emma said. “Kidnap all the ymbrynes you want. They’ll never help you.”

  “Yes, they will. They’ll do it or we’ll kill them one by one. And if that doesn’t work, we’ll kill you one by one, and make them watch.”

  “You’re insane,” I told him.

  The birds began to panic and screech. Golan shouted over them.

  “No! What’s really insane is how you peculiars hide from the world when you could rule it—succumb to death when you could dominate it—and let the common genetic trash of the human race drive you underground when you could so easily make them your slaves, as they rightly should be!” He drove home every sentence with another shake of the cage. “That’s insane!”

  “Stop it!” Emma shouted.

  “So you do care!” He shook the cage even harder. Suddenly, the little red light attached to its bars began to glow twice as bright, and Golan whipped his head around and searched the darkness behind him. Then he looked back at Emma and said, “You want them? Here!” and he pulled back and swung the cage at her face.

  She cried out and ducked. Like a discus thrower, Golan continued the swing until the cage sailed over her head, then released. It flew out of his hands and over the rail, tumbling end over end into the night.

  I cursed and Emma screamed and threw herself against the rail, clawing at the air as the cage fell toward the sea. In that moment of confusion, Golan leapt and knocked me to the ground. He slammed a fist into my stomach and another into my chin.

  I was dizzy and couldn’t breathe. He grabbed for the gun, and it took every bit of my strength to keep him from snatching it. Because he wanted it so badly, I knew it must’ve been loaded. I would’ve thrown it over the rail, but he almost had it and I couldn’t let go. Emma was screaming bastard, you bastard, and then her hands, gloved in flame, came from behind and seized him around the neck.

  I heard Golan’s flesh singe like a cold steak on a hot grill. He howled and rolled off me, his thin hair going up in flame, and then his hands were around Emma’s throat, as though he didn’t mind burning as long as he could choke the life out of her. I jumped to my feet, held the gun in both hands, and pointed it.

  I had, just for a moment, a clear shot. I tried to empty my mind and focus on steadying my arm, creating an imaginary line that extended from my shoulder through the sight to my target—a man’s head. No, not a man, but a corruption of one. A thing. A force that had arranged the murder of my grandfather and exploded all that I’d humbly called a life, poorly lived though it may have been, and carried me here to this place and this moment, in much the way less corrupt and violent forces had done my living and deciding for me since I was old enough to decide anything. Relax your hands, breathe in, hold it. But now I had a chance to force back, a slim nothing of a chance that I could already feel slipping away.

  Now squeeze.

  The pistol bucked in my hands and its report sounded like the earth breaking open, so tremendous and sudden that I shut my eyes. When I opened them again, everything seemed strangely frozen. Though Golan stood behind Emma with her arms locked in a hold, wrestling her toward the railing, it was as if they’d been cast in bronze. Had the ymbrynes turned human again and worked their magic on us? But then everything came unstuck and Emma wrenched her arms away and Golan began to totter backward, and he stumbled and sat heavily on the rail.

  Gaping at me in surprise, he opened his mouth to speak but found he could not. He clapped his hands over the penny-sized hole I’d made in his throat, blood lacing through his fingers and running down his arms, and then the strength went out of him and he fell back, and he was gone.

  The moment Golan disappeared from view, he was forgotten. Emma pointed out to sea and shouted, “There, there!” Following her finger and squinting into the distance I could barely pick out the pulse of a red LED bobbing on the waves. Then we were scrambling to the hatch and sprinting down and down the endless seesawing staircase, hopeless that we could reach the cage before it sank but hysterical to try to anyway.

  We tore outside to find Millard wearing a tourniquet and Bronwyn by his side. He shouted something I didn’t quite hear, but it was enough to assure me he was alive. I grabbed Emma’s shoulder and said, “The boat!” pointing to where the stolen canoe had been lashed to a rock, but it was too far away, on the wrong side of the lighthouse, and there was no time. Emma pulled me instead toward the open sea, and, running, we dashed ourselves into it.

  I hardly felt the cold. All I could think about was reaching the cage before it disappeared beneath the waves. We tor
e at the water and sputtered and choked as black swells slapped our faces. It was difficult to tell how far away the beacon was, just a single point of light in a surging ocean of dark. It bobbed and fell and came and went, and twice we lost sight of it and had to stop, searching frantically before spotting it again.

  The strong current was carrying the cage out to sea, and us with it. If we didn’t reach it soon, our muscles would fail and we’d drown. I kept this morbid thought to myself for as long as I could, but when the beacon disappeared a third time and we looked for it so long we couldn’t even be sure what section of the rolling black sea it had disappeared from, I shouted, “We have to go back!”

  Emma wouldn’t listen. She swam ahead of me, farther out to sea. I grasped at her scissoring feet but she kicked me off.

  “It’s gone! We aren’t going to find them!”

  “Shut up, shut up!” she cried, and I could tell from her labored breaths that she was as exhausted as I was. “Just shut up and look!”

  I grabbed her and shouted in her face and she kicked at me, and when I wouldn’t let go and she couldn’t force me to, she began to cry, just wordless howls of despair.

  I tried to drag her back toward the lighthouse, but she was like a stone in the water, pulling me down. “You have to swim!” I shouted. “Swim or we’ll drown!”

  And then I saw it—the faintest blink of red light. It was close, just below the surface. At first I didn’t say anything, afraid I’d imagined it, but then it blinked a second time.

  Emma whooped and shouted. It looked like the cage had landed on another wreck—how else could it have come to rest so shallowly?—and because it had only just sunk, I told myself it was possible the birds were still alive.

  We swam and prepared to dive for the cage, though I didn’t know where the breath would come from, we had so little left. Then, strangely, the cage seemed to rise toward us.

  “What’s happening?” I shouted. “Is that a wreck?”

  “Can’t be. There are none over here!”

  “Then what the hell is that?”

  It looked like a whale about to surface, long and massive and gray, or some ghost ship rising from its grave, and there erupted a sudden and powerful swell that came up from below and pushed us away. We tried to paddle against it but had no more luck than flotsam caught in a tidal wave, and then it thudded against our feet and we were rising, too, riding its back.

  It came out of the water beneath us, hissing and clanking like some giant mechanical monster. We were caught in a sudden rush of foaming surf that raced off it in every direction, thrown hard onto a surface of metal grates. We hooked our fingers through the grates to keep from being washed into the sea. I squinted through the salt spray and saw that the cage had come to rest between what looked like two fins jutting from the monster’s back, one smaller and one larger. And then the lighthouse beam swept past, and in its gleam I realized they weren’t fins at all but a conning tower and a giant bolted-down gun. This thing we were riding wasn’t a monster or a wreck or a whale—

  “It’s a U-boat!” I shouted. That it had risen right beneath our feet was no coincidence. It had to be what Golan was waiting for.

  Emma was already on her feet and sprinting across the rolling deck toward the cage. I scrambled to stand. As I began to run a wave flashed over the deck and knocked us both down.

  I heard a shout and looked up to see a man in a gray uniform rise from a hatch in the conning tower and level a gun at us.

  Bullets rained down, hammering the deck. The cage was too far away—we’d be torn to pieces before we could reach it—but I could see that Emma was about to try anyway.

  I ran and tackled her and we tumbled sideways off the deck and into the water. The black sea closed above us. Bullets peppered the water, leaving trails of bubbles in their wake.

  When we surfaced again, she grabbed me and screamed, “Why did you do that? I nearly had them!”

  “He was about to kill you!” I said, wrestling away—and then it occurred to me that she hadn’t even seen him, she’d been so focused on the cage, so I pointed up at the deck, where the gunner was striding toward it. He picked the cage up and rattled it. Its door hung open, and I thought I saw movement inside—some reason for hope—and then the lighthouse beam washed over everything. I saw the gunner’s face full in the light, his mouth curled into a leering grin, his eyes depthless and blank. He was a wight.

  He reached into the cage and pulled out a single sodden bird. From the conning tower, another soldier whistled to him, and he ran back toward the hatch with it.

  The sub began to rattle and hiss. The water around us churned as if boiling.

  “Swim or it’ll suck us down with it!” I shouted to Emma. But she hadn’t heard me—her eyes were locked elsewhere, on a patch of dark water near the stern of the boat.

  She swam for it. I tried to stop her but she fought me off. Then, over the whine of the sub, I heard it—a high, shrieking call. Miss Peregrine!

  We found her bobbing in the waves, struggling to keep her head above water, one wing flapping, the other broken looking. Emma scooped her up. I screamed that we had to go.

  We swam away with what little strength we had. Behind us, a whirlpool was opening up, all the water displaced by the sub rushing back to fill the void as it sank. The sea was consuming itself and trying to consume us, too, but we had with us now a screeching winged symbol of victory, or half a victory at least, and she gave us the strength to fight the unnatural current. Then we heard Bronwyn shouting our names, and our brawny friend came crashing through the waves to tow us back to safety.

  * * *

  We lay on the rocks beneath the clearing sky, gasping for air and trembling with exhaustion. Millard and Bronwyn had so many questions, but we had no breath to answer them. They had seen Golan’s body fall and the submarine rise and sink and Miss Peregrine come out of the water but not Miss Avocet; they understood what they needed to. They hugged us until we stopped shaking, and Bronwyn tucked the headmistress under her shirt for warmth. Once we’d recovered a little, we retrieved Emma’s canoe and pushed off toward the shore.

  When we got there, the children all waded into the shallows to meet us.

  “We heard shooting!”

  “What was that strange boat?”

  “Where’s Miss Peregrine?”

  We climbed out of the rowboat, and Bronwyn raised her shirt to reveal the bird nuzzled there. The children crowded around, and Miss Peregrine lifted her beak and crowed at them to show that she was tired but all right. A cheer went up.

  “You did it!” Hugh shouted.

  Olive danced a little jig and sang, “The Bird, the Bird, the Bird! Emma and Jacob saved the Bird!”

  But the celebration was brief. Miss Avocet’s absence was quickly noted, as was Millard’s alarming condition. His tourniquet was tight, but he’d lost a lot of blood and was weakening. Enoch gave him his coat, Fiona offered her woolen hat.

  “We’ll take you to see the doctor in town,” Emma said to him.

  “Nonsense,” Millard replied. “The man’s never laid eyes on an invisible boy, and he wouldn’t know what to do with one if he did. He’d either treat the wrong limb or run away screaming.”

  “It doesn’t matter if he runs away screaming,” Emma said. “Once the loop resets he won’t remember a thing.”

  “Look around you. The loop should’ve reset an hour ago.”

  Millard was right—the skies were quiet, the battle had ended, but rolling drifts of bomb smoke still mixed with the clouds.

  “That’s not good,” Enoch said, and everyone got quiet.

  “In any case,” Millard continued, “all the supplies I need are in the house. Just give me a bolt of Laudanum and swab the wound with alcohol. It’s only the fleshy part anyway. In three days I’ll be right as rain.”

  “But it’s still bleeding,” Bronwyn said, pointing out red droplets that dotted the sand beneath him.

  “Then tie the damn tourniquet tighte
r!”

  She did, and Millard gasped in a way that made everyone cringe, then fainted into her arms.

  “Is he all right?” Claire asked.

  “Just blacked out is all,” said Enoch. “He ain’t as fit as he pretends to be.”

  “What do we do now?”

  “Ask Miss Peregrine!” Olive said.

  “Right. Put her down so she can change back,” said Enoch. “She can’t very well tell us what to do while she’s still a bird.”

  So Bronwyn set her on a dry patch of sand, and we all stood back and waited. Miss Peregrine hopped a few times and flapped her good wing and then swiveled her feathered head around and blinked at us—but that was it. She remained a bird.

  “Maybe she wants a little privacy,” Emma suggested. “Let’s turn our backs.”

  So we did, forming a ring around her. “It’s safe now, Miss P,” said Olive. “No one’s looking!”

  After a minute, Hugh snuck a peek and said, “Nope, still a bird.”

  “Maybe she’s too tired and cold,” Claire said, and enough of the others agreed this was plausible that it was decided we would go back to the house, treat Millard with what supplies we had, and hope that with some time to rest, both the headmistress and her loop would return to normal.

  We marched up the steep trail and across the ridge like a company of war-weary veterans, single file, heads down, Bronwyn carrying Millard in her arms and Miss Peregrine riding the nestlike crown of Fiona’s hair. The landscape was gouged with smoking craters, fresh-turned earth thrown everywhere as if some giant dog had been digging at it. We all wondered what awaited us back at the house, but no one dared to ask.

  We had our answer even before clearing the forest. Enoch’s foot kicked something, and he bent down to look. It was half a charred brick.

  Panic broke out. The children began to sprint down the path. When they reached the lawn, the younger ones broke out in tears. There was smoke everywhere. The bomb had not come to rest atop Adam’s finger, as it usually did, but had split him straight down the middle and exploded. The back corner of the house had been reduced to a slumped and smoking ruin. Small fires burned in the charred shell of two rooms. Where Adam had been was a raw crater deep enough to bury a person upright. It was easy now to picture what this place would one day become: that sad and desecrated wreck I had first discovered weeks ago. The nightmare house.

 
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