Miss peregrines home for.., p.5
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.5

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
 

  “I don’t,” I assured her.

  “Not consciously he doesn’t,” Dr. Golan said. “But it’s his unconscious that’s causing him problems right now. The dreams, the anxiety.”

  “And you really think going there could help?” my mother said, narrowing her eyes at him as if readying herself to hear the unvarnished truth. When it came to things I should or should not be doing, Dr. Golan’s word was law.

  “I do,” he replied.

  And that was all it took.

  * * *

  After that, things fell into place with astonishing speed. Plane tickets were bought, schedules scheduled, plans laid. My dad and I would go for three weeks in June. I wondered if that was too long, but he claimed he needed at least that much time to make a thorough study of the island’s bird colonies. I thought mom would object—three whole weeks!—but the closer our trip got, the more excited for us she seemed. “My two men,” she would say, beaming, “off on a big adventure!”

  I found her enthusiasm kind of touching, actually—until the afternoon I overheard her talking on the phone to a friend, venting about how relieved she’d be to “have her life back” for three weeks and not have “two needy children to worry about.”

  I love you too, I wanted to say with as much hurtful sarcasm as I could muster, but she hadn’t seen me, and I kept quiet. I did love her, of course, but mostly just because loving your mom is mandatory, not because she was someone I think I’d like very much if I met her walking down the street. Which she wouldn’t be, anyway; walking is for poor people.

  During the three-week window between the end of school and the start of our trip, I did my best to verify that Ms. Alma LeFay Peregrine still resided among the living, but Internet searches turned up nothing. Assuming she was still alive, I had hoped to get her on the phone and at least warn her that I was coming, but I soon discovered that almost no one on Cairnholm even had a phone. I found only one number for the entire island, so that’s the one I dialed.

  It took nearly a minute to connect, the line hissing and clicking, going quiet, then hissing again, so that I could feel every mile of the vast distance my call was spanning. Finally I heard that strange European ring—waaap-waaap … waaap-waaap—and a man whom I could only assume was profoundly intoxicated answered the phone.

  “Piss hole!” he bellowed. There was an unholy amount of noise in the background, the kind of dull roar you’d expect at the height of a raging frat party. I tried to identify myself, but I don’t think he could hear me.

  “Piss hole!” he bellowed again. “Who’s this now?” But before I could say anything he’d pulled the receiver away from his head to shout at someone. “I said shaddap, ya dozy bastards, I’m on the—”

  And then the line went dead. I sat with the receiver to my ear for a long, puzzled moment, then hung up. I didn’t bother calling back. If Cairnholm’s only phone connected to some den of iniquity called the “piss hole,” how did that bode for the rest of the island? Would my first trip to Europe be spent evading drunken maniacs and watching birds evacuate their bowels on rocky beaches? Maybe so. But if it meant that I’d finally be able to put my grandfather’s mystery to rest and get on with my unextraordinary life, anything I had to endure would be worth it.

  Fog closed around us like a blindfold. When the captain announced that we were nearly there, at first I thought he was kidding; all I could see from the ferry’s rolling deck was an endless curtain of gray. I clutched the rail and stared into the green waves, contemplating the fish who might soon be enjoying my breakfast, while my father stood shivering beside me in shirtsleeves. It was colder and wetter than I’d ever known June could be. I hoped, for his sake and mine, that the grueling thirty-six hours we’d braved to get this far—three airplanes, two layovers, shift-napping in grubby train stations, and now this interminable gut-churning ferry ride—would pay off. Then my father shouted, “Look!” and I raised my head to see a towering mountain of rock emerge from the blank canvas before us.

  It was my grandfather’s island. Looming and bleak, folded in mist, guarded by a million screeching birds, it looked like some ancient fortress constructed by giants. As I gazed up at its sheer cliffs, tops disappearing in a reef of ghostly clouds, the idea that this was a magical place didn’t seem so ridiculous.

  My nausea seemed to vanish. Dad ran around like a kid on Christmas, his eyes glued to the birds wheeling above us. “Jacob, look at that!” he cried, pointing to a cluster of airborne specks. “Manx Shearwaters!”

  As we drew nearer the cliffs, I began to notice odd shapes lurking underwater. A passing crewman caught me leaning over the rail to stare at them and said, “Never seen a shipwreck before, eh?”

  I turned to him. “Really?”

  “This whole area’s a nautical graveyard. It’s like the old captains used to say—‘Twixt Hartland Point and Cairnholm Bay is a sailor’s grave by night or day!’ ”

  Just then we passed a wreck that was so near the surface, the outline of its greening carcass so clear, that it looked like it was about to rise out of the water like a zombie from a shallow grave. “See that one?” he said, pointing at it. “Sunk by a U-boat, she was.”

  “There were U-boats around here?”

  “Loads. Whole Irish Sea was rotten with German subs. Wager you’d have half a navy on your hands if you could unsink all the ships they torpedoed.” He arched one eyebrow dramatically, then walked off laughing.

  I jogged along the deck to the stern, tracking the shipwreck as it disappeared beneath our wake. Then, just as I was starting to wonder if we’d need climbing gear to get onto the island, its steep cliffs sloped down to meet us. We rounded a headland to enter a rocky half-moon bay. In the distance I saw a little harbor bobbing with colorful fishing boats, and beyond it a town set into a green bowl of land. A patchwork of sheep-speckled fields spread across hills that rose away to meet a high ridge, where a wall of clouds stood like a cotton parapet. It was dramatic and beautiful, unlike any place I’d seen. I felt a little thrill of adventure as we chugged into the bay, as if I were sighting land where maps had noted only a sweep of undistinguished blue.

  The ferry docked and we humped our bags into the little town. Upon closer inspection I decided it was, like a lot of things, not as pretty up close as it seemed from a distance. Whitewashed cottages, quaint except for the satellite dishes sprouting from their roofs, lined a small grid of muddy gravel streets. Because Cairnholm was too distant and too inconsequential to justify the cost of running power lines from the mainland, foul-smelling diesel generators buzzed on every corner like angry wasps, harmonizing with the growl of tractors, the island’s only vehicular traffic. At the edges of town, ancient-looking cottages stood abandoned and roofless, evidence of a shrinking population, children lured away from centuries-old fishing and farming traditions by more glamorous opportunities elsewhere.

  We dragged our stuff through town looking for something called the Priest Home, where my dad had booked a room. I pictured an old church converted into a bed and breakfast—nothing fancy, just somewhere to sleep when we weren’t watching birds or chasing down leads. We asked a few locals for directions but got only confused looks in return. “They speak English, right?” my dad wondered aloud. Just as my hand was beginning to ache from the unreasonable weight of my suitcase, we came upon a church. We thought we’d found our accommodations, until we went inside and saw that it had indeed been converted, but into a dingy little museum, not a B&B.

  We found the part-time curator in a room hung with old fishing nets and sheep shears. His face lit up when he saw us, then fell when he realized we were only lost.

  “I reckon you’re after the Priest Hole,” he said. “It’s got the only rooms to let on the island.”

  He proceeded to give us directions in a lilting accent, which I found enormously entertaining. I loved hearing Welsh people talk, even if half of what they said was incomprehensible to me. My dad thanked the man and turned to go, but he’d been so helpful, I h
ung back to ask him another question.

  “Where can we find the old children’s home?”

  “The old what?” he said, squinting at me.

  For an awful moment I was afraid we’d come to the wrong island or, worse yet, that the home was just another thing my grandfather had invented.

  “It was a home for refugee kids?” I said. “During the war? A big house?”

  The man chewed his lip and regarded me doubtfully, as if deciding whether to help or to wash his hands of the whole thing. But he took pity on me. “I don’t know about any refugees,” he said, “but I think I know the place you mean. It’s way up the other side of the island, past the bog and through the woods. Though I wouldn’t go mucking about up there alone, if I was you. Stray too far from the path and that’s the last anyone’ll hear of you—nothing but wet grass and sheep patties to keep you from going straight over a cliff.”

  “That’s good to know,” my dad said, eyeing me. “Promise me you won’t go by yourself.”

  “All right, all right.”

  “What’s your interest in it, anyhow?” the man said. “It’s not exactly on the tourist maps.”

  “Just a little genealogy project,” my father replied, lingering near the door. “My dad spent a few years there as a kid.” I could tell he was eager to avoid any mention of psychiatrists or dead grandfathers. He thanked the man again and quickly ushered me out the door.

  Following the curator’s directions, we retraced our steps until we came to a grim-looking statue carved from black stone, a memorial called the Waiting Woman dedicated to islanders lost at sea. She wore a pitiful expression and stood with arms outstretched in the direction of the harbor, many blocks away, but also toward the Priest Hole, which was directly across the street. Now, I’m no hotel connoisseur, but one glance at the weathered sign told me that our stay was unlikely to be a four-star mints-on-your-pillow-type experience. Printed in giant script at the top was WINES, ALES, SPIRITS. Below that, in more modest lettering, Fine Food. Handwritten along the bottom, clearly an afterthought, was Rooms to Let, though the s had been struck out, leaving just the singular Room. As we lugged our bags toward the door, my father grumbling about con men and false advertising, I glanced back at the Waiting Woman and wondered if she wasn’t just waiting for someone to bring her a drink.

  We squeezed our bags through the doorway and stood blinking in the sudden gloom of a low-ceilinged pub. When my eyes had adjusted, I realized that hole was a pretty accurate description of the place: tiny leaded windows admitted just enough light to find the beer tap without tripping over tables and chairs on the way. The tables, worn and wobbling, looked like they might be more useful as firewood. The bar was half-filled, at whatever hour of the morning it was, with men in various states of hushed intoxication, heads bowed prayerfully over tumblers of amber liquid.

  “You must be after the room,” said the man behind the bar, coming out to shake our hands. “I’m Kev and these are the fellas. Say hullo, fellas.”

  “Hullo,” they muttered, nodding at their drinks.

  We followed Kev up a narrow staircase to a suite of rooms (plural!) that could charitably be described as basic. There were two bedrooms, the larger of which Dad claimed, and a room that tripled as a kitchen, dining room, and living room, meaning that it contained one table, one moth-eaten sofa, and one hotplate. The bathroom worked “most of the time,” according to Kev, “but if it ever gets dicey, there’s always Old Reliable.” He directed our attention to a portable toilet in the alley out back, conveniently visible from my bedroom window.

  “Oh, and you’ll need these,” he said, fetching a pair of oil lamps from a cabinet. “The generators stop running at ten since petrol’s so bloody expensive to ship out, so either you get to bed early or you learn to love candles and kerosene.” He grinned. “Hope it ain’t too medieval for ya!”

  We assured Kev that outhouses and kerosene would be just fine, sounded like fun, in fact—a little adventure, yessir—and then he led us downstairs for the final leg of our tour. “You’re welcome to take your meals here,” he said, “and I expect you will, on account of there’s nowhere else to eat. If you need to make a call, we got a phone box in the corner there. Sometimes there’s a bit of a queue for it, though, since we get doodly for mobile reception out here and you’re looking at the only land-line on the island. That’s right, we got it all—only food, only bed, only phone!” And he leaned back and laughed, long and loud.

  The only phone on the island. I looked over at it—it was the kind that had a door you could pull shut for privacy, like the ones you see in old movies—and realized with dawning horror that this was the Grecian orgy, this was the raging frat party I had been connected to when I called the island a few weeks ago. This was the piss hole.

  Kev handed my dad the keys to our rooms. “Any questions,” he said, “you know where to find me.”

  “I have a question,” I said. “What’s a piss—I mean, a priest hole?”

  The men at the bar burst into laughter. “Why, it’s a hole for priests, of course!” one said, which made the rest of them laugh even harder.

  Kev walked over to an uneven patch of floorboards next to the fireplace, where a mangy dog lay sleeping. “Right here,” he said, tapping what appeared to be a door in the floor with his shoe. “Ages ago, when just being a Catholic could get you hung from a tree, clergyfolk came here seeking refuge. If Queen Elizabeth’s crew of thugs come chasing after, we hid whoever needed hiding in snug little spots like this—priest holes.” It struck me the way he said we, as if he’d known those long-dead islanders personally.

  “Snug indeed!” one of the drinkers said. “Bet they were warm as toast and tight as drums down there!”

  “I’d take warm and snug to strung up by priest killers any day,” said another.

  “Here, here!” the first man said. “To Cairnholm—may she always be our rock of refuge!”

  “To Cairnholm!” they chorused, and raised their glasses together.

  * * *

  Jet-lagged and exhausted, we went to sleep early—or rather we went to our beds and lay in them with pillows covering our heads to block out the thumping cacophony that issued through the floorboards, which grew so loud that at one point I thought surely the revelers had invaded my room. Then the clock must’ve struck ten because all at once the buzzing generators outside sputtered and died, as did the music from downstairs and the streetlight that had been shining through my window. Suddenly I was cocooned in silent, blissful darkness, with only the whisper of distant waves to remind me where I was.

  For the first time in months, I fell into a deep, nightmare-free slumber. I dreamed instead about my grandfather as a boy, about his first night here, a stranger in a strange land, under a strange roof, owing his life to people who spoke a strange tongue. When I awoke, sun streaming through my window, I realized it wasn’t just my grandfather’s life that Miss Peregrine had saved, but mine, too, and my father’s. Today, with any luck, I would finally get to thank her.

  I went downstairs to find my dad already bellied up to a table, slurping coffee and polishing his fancy binoculars. Just as I sat down, Kev appeared bearing two plates loaded with mystery meat and fried toast. “I didn’t know you could fry toast,” I remarked, to which Kev replied that there wasn’t a food he was aware of that couldn’t be improved by frying.

  Over breakfast, Dad and I discussed our plan for the day. It was to be a kind of scout, to familiarize ourselves with the island. We’d scope out my dad’s bird-watching spots first and then find the children’s home. I scarfed my food, anxious to get started.

  Well fortified with grease, we left the pub and walked through town, dodging tractors and shouting to each other over the din of generators until the streets gave way to fields and the noise faded behind us. It was a crisp and blustery day—the sun hiding behind giant cloudbanks only to burst out moments later and dapple the hills with spectacular rays of light—and I felt energized and hopeful. We we
re heading for a rocky beach where my dad had spotted a bunch of birds from the ferry. I wasn’t sure how we would reach it, though—the island was slightly bowl shaped, with hills that climbed toward its edges only to drop off at precarious seaside cliffs—but at this particular spot the edge had been rounded off and a path led down to a minor spit of sand along the water.

  We picked our way down to the beach, where what seemed to be an entire civilization of birds were flapping and screeching and fishing in tide pools. I watched my father’s eyes widen. “Fascinating,” he muttered, scraping at some petrified guano with the stubby end of his pen. “I’m going to need some time here. Is that all right?”

  I’d seen this look on his face before, and I knew exactly what “some time” meant: hours and hours. “Then I’ll go find the house by myself,” I said.

  “Not alone, you aren’t. You promised.”

  “Then I’ll find a person who can take me.”

  “Who?”

  “Kev will know someone.”

  My dad looked out to sea, where a big rusted lighthouse jutted up from a pile of rocks. “You know what the answer would be if your mom were here,” he said.

  My parents had differing theories about how much parenting I required. Mom was the enforcer, always hovering, but Dad hung back a little. He thought it was important that I make my own mistakes now and then. Also, letting me go would free him to play with guano all day.

  “Okay,” he said, “but make sure you leave me the number of whoever you go with.”

  “Dad, nobody here has phones.”

  He sighed. “Right. Well, as long as they’re reliable.”

  * * *

  Kev was out running an errand, and because asking one of his drunken regulars to chaperone me seemed like a bad idea, I went into the nearest shop to ask someone who was at least gainfully employed. The door read FISHMONGER. I pushed it open to find myself cowering before a bearded giant in a blood-soaked apron. He left off decapitating fish to glare at me, dripping cleaver in hand, and I vowed never again to discriminate against the intoxicated.

 
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