Miss peregrines home for.., p.6
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.6

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

  “What the hell for?” he growled when I told him where I wanted to go. “Nothing over there but bogland and barmy weather.”

  I explained about my grandfather and the children’s home. He frowned at me, then leaned over the counter to cast a doubtful glance at my shoes.

  “I s’pose Dylan ain’t too busy to take you,” he said, pointing his cleaver at a kid about my age who was arranging fish in a freezer case, “but you’ll be wantin’ proper footwear. Wouldn’t do to let you go in them trainers—mud’ll suck ’em right off!”

  “Really?” I said. “Are you sure?”

  “Dylan! Fetch our man here a pair of Wellingtons!”

  The kid groaned and made a big show of slowly closing the freezer case and cleaning his hands before slouching over to a wall of shelves packed with dry goods.

  “Just so happens we’ve got some good sturdy boots on offer,” the fishmonger said. “Buy one get none free!” He burst out laughing and slammed his cleaver on a salmon, its head shooting across the blood-slicked counter to land perfectly in a little guillotine bucket.

  I fished the emergency money Dad had given me from my pocket, figuring that a little extortion was a small price to pay to find the woman I’d crossed the Atlantic to meet.

  I left the shop wearing a pair of rubber boots so large my sneakers fit inside and so heavy it was difficult to keep up with my begrudging guide.

  “So, do you go to school on the island?” I asked Dylan, scurrying to catch up. I was genuinely curious—what was living here like for someone my age?

  He muttered the name of a town on the mainland.

  “What is that, an hour each way by ferry?”

  “Yup.”

  And that was it. He responded to further attempts at conversation with even fewer syllables—which is to say, none—so finally I just gave up and followed him. On the way out of town we ran into one of his friends, an older boy wearing a blinding yellow track suit and fake gold chains. He couldn’t have looked more out of place on Cairnholm if he’d been dressed like an astronaut. He gave Dylan a fist-bump and introduced himself as Worm.

  “Worm?”

  “It’s his stage name,” Dylan explained.

  “We’re the sickest rapping duo in Wales,” Worm said. “I’m MC Worm, and this is the Sturgeon Surgeon, aka Emcee Dirty Dylan, aka Emcee Dirty Bizniss, Cairnholm’s number one beat-boxer. Wanna show this Yank how we do, Dirty D?”

  Dylan looked annoyed. “Now?”

  “Drop some next-level beats, son!”

  Dylan rolled his eyes but did as he was asked. At first I thought he was choking on his tongue, except there was a rhythm to his sputtering coughs,—puhh, puh-CHAH, puh-puhhh, puh-CHAH—over which Worm began to rap.

  “I likes to get wrecked up down at the Priest Hole / Your dad’s always there ’cause he’s on the dole / My rhymes is tight, yeah I make it look easy / Dylan’s beats are hot like chicken jalfrezi!”

  Dylan stopped. “That don’t even make sense,” he said. “And it’s your dad who’s on the dole.”

  “Oh shit, Dirty D let the beat drop!” Worm started beat-boxing while doing a passable robot, his sneakers twisting holes in the gravel. “Take the mic, D!”

  Dylan seemed embarrassed but let the rhymes fly anyway. “I met a tight bird and her name was Sharon / She was keen on my tracksuit and the trainers I was wearin’ / I showed her the time, like Doctor Who / I thunk up this rhyme while I was in the loo!”

  Worm shook his head. “The loo?”

  “I wasn’t ready!”

  They turned to me and asked what I thought. Considering that they didn’t even like each other’s rapping, I wasn’t sure what to say.

  “I guess I’m more into music with, like, singing and guitars and stuff.”

  Worm dismissed me with a wave of his hand. “He wouldn’t know a dope rhyme if it bit him in the bollocks,” he muttered.

  Dylan laughed and they exchanged a series of complex, multistage handshake-fist-bump-high-fives.

  “Can we go now?” I said.

  They grumbled and dawdled a while longer, but pretty soon we were on our way, this time with Worm tagging along.

  I took up the rear, trying to figure out what I would say to Miss Peregrine when I met her. I was expecting to be introduced to a proper Welsh lady and sip tea in the parlor and make polite small talk until the time seemed right to break the bad news. I’m Abraham Portman’s grandson, I would say. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but he’s been taken from us. Then, once she’d finished quietly dabbing away tears, I would ply her with questions.

  I followed Dylan and Worm along a path that wound through pastures of grazing sheep before a lung-busting ascent up a ridge. At the top hovered an embankment of rolling, snaking fog so dense it was like stepping into another world. It was truly biblical; a fog I could imagine God, in one of his lesser wraths, cursing the Egyptians with. As we descended the other side it only seemed to thicken. The sun faded to a pale white bloom. Moisture clung to everything, beading on my skin and dampening my clothes. The temperature dropped. I lost Worm and Dylan for a moment and then the path flattened and I came upon them just standing, waiting for me.

  “Yank boy!” Dylan called. “This way!”

  I followed obediently. We abandoned the path to plow through a field of marshy grass. Sheep stared at us with big leaky eyes, their wool soggy and tails drooping. A small house appeared out of the mist. It was all boarded up.

  “You sure this is it?” I said. “It looks empty.”

  “Empty? No way, there’s loads of shit in there,” Worm replied.

  “Go on,” said Dylan. “Have a look.”

  I had a feeling it was a trick but stepped up to the door and knocked anyway. It was unlatched and opened a little at my touch. It was too dark to see inside, so I took a step through—and, to my surprise, down—into what looked like a dirt floor but, I quickly realized, was in fact a shin-deep ocean of excrement. This tenantless hovel, so innocent looking from the outside, was really a makeshift sheep stable. Quite literally a shithole.

  “Oh my God!” I squealed in disgust.

  Peals of laughter exploded from outside. I stumbled backward through the door before the smell could knock me unconscious and found the boys doubled over, holding their stomachs.

  “You guys are assholes,” I said, stomping the muck off my boots.

  “Why?” said Worm. “We told you it was full of shit!”

  I got in Dylan’s face. “Are you gonna show me the house or not?”

  “He’s serious,” said Worm, wiping tears from his eyes.

  “Of course I’m serious!”

  Dylan’s smile faded. “I thought you were taking a piss, mate.”

  “Taking a what?”

  “Joking, like.”

  “Well, I wasn’t.”

  The boys exchanged an uneasy look. Dylan whispered something to Worm. Worm whispered something back. Finally Dylan turned and pointed up the path. “If you really want to see it,” he said, “keep going past the bog and through the woods. It’s a big old place. You can’t miss it.”

  “What the hell. You’re supposed to go with me!”

  Worm looked away and said, “This is as far as we go.”

  “Why?”

  “It just is.” And they turned and began to trudge back the way we’d come, receding into the fog.

  I weighed my options. I could tuck tail and follow my tormenters back to town, or I could go ahead alone and lie to Dad about it.

  After four seconds of intense deliberation, I was on my way.

  * * *

  A vast, lunar bog stretched away into the mist from either side of the path, just brown grass and tea-colored water as far as I could see, featureless but for the occasional mound of piled-up stones. It ended abruptly at a forest of skeletal trees, branches spindling up like the tips of wet paintbrushes, and for a while the path became so lost beneath fallen trunks and carpets of ivy that navigating it was a matter of fait
h. I wondered how an elderly person like Miss Peregrine would ever be able to negotiate such an obstacle course. She must get deliveries, I thought, though the path looked like it hadn’t seen a footprint in months, if not years.

  I scrambled over a giant trunk slick with moss, and the path took a sharp turn. The trees parted like a curtain and suddenly there it was, cloaked in fog, looming atop a weed-choked hill. The house. I understood at once why the boys had refused to come.

  My grandfather had described it a hundred times, but in his stories the house was always a bright, happy place—big and rambling, yes, but full of light and laughter. What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters but a monster itself, staring down from its perch on the hill with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus—as if nature itself had waged war against it—but the house seemed unkillable, resolutely upright despite the wrongness of its angles and the jagged teeth of sky visible through sections of collapsed roof.

  I tried to convince myself that it was possible someone could still live there, run-down as it was. Such things weren’t unheard of where I came from—a falling-down wreck on the edge of town, curtains permanently drawn, that would turn out to have been home to some ancient recluse who’d been surviving on ramen and toenail clippings since time immemorial, though no one realizes it until a property appraiser or an overly ambitious census taker barges in to find the poor soul returning to dust in a La-Z-Boy. People get too old to care for a place, their family writes them off for one reason or another—it’s sad, but it happens. Which meant, like it or not, that I was going to have to knock.

  I gathered what scrawny courage I had and waded through waist-high weeds to the porch, all broken tile and rotting wood, to peek through a cracked window. All I could make out through the smeared glass were the outlines of furniture, so I knocked on the door and stood back to wait in the eerie silence, tracing the shape of Miss Peregrine’s letter in my pocket. I’d taken it along in case I needed to prove who I was, but as a minute ticked by, then two, it seemed less and less likely that I would need it.

  Climbing down into the yard, I circled the house looking for another way in, taking the measure of the place, but it seemed almost without measure, as though with every corner I turned the house sprouted new balconies and turrets and chimneys. Then I came around back and saw my opportunity: a doorless doorway, bearded with vines, gaping and black; an open mouth just waiting to swallow me. Just looking at it made my skin crawl, but I hadn’t come halfway around the world just to run away screaming at the sight of a scary house. I thought of all the horrors Grandpa Portman had faced in his life, and felt my resolve harden. If there was anyone to find inside, I would find them. I mounted the crumbling steps and crossed the threshold.

  * * *

  Standing in a tomb-dark hallway just inside the door, I stared frozenly at what looked for all the world like skins hanging from hooks. After a queasy moment in which I imagined some twisted cannibal leaping from the shadows with knife in hand, I realized they were only coats rotted to rags and green with age. I shuddered involuntarily and took a deep breath. I’d only explored ten feet of the house and was already about to foul my underwear. Keep it together, I told myself, and then slowly moved forward, heart hammering in my chest.

  Each room was a disaster more incredible than the last. Newspapers gathered in drifts. Scattered toys, evidence of children long gone, lay skinned in dust. Creeping mold had turned window-adjacent walls black and furry. Fireplaces were throttled with vines that had descended from the roof and begun to spread across the floors like alien tentacles. The kitchen was a science experiment gone terribly wrong—entire shelves of jarred food had exploded from sixty seasons of freezing and thawing, splattering the wall with evil-looking stains—and fallen plaster lay so thickly over the dining room floor that for a moment I thought it had snowed indoors. At the end of a light-starved corridor I tested my weight on a rickety staircase, my boots leaving fresh tracks in layers of dust. The steps groaned as if woken from a long sleep. If anyone was upstairs, they’d been there a very long time.

  Finally I came upon a pair of rooms missing entire walls, into which a little forest of underbrush and stunted trees had grown. I stood in the sudden breeze wondering what could possibly have done that kind of damage, and began to get the feeling that something terrible had happened here. I couldn’t square my grandfather’s idyllic stories with this nightmare house, nor the idea that he’d found refuge here with the sense of disaster that pervaded it. There was more left to explore, but suddenly it seemed like a waste of time; it was impossible that anyone could still be living here, even the most misanthropic recluse. I left the house feeling like I was further than ever from the truth.

  Once I’d hopped and tripped and felt my way like a blind man through the woods and fog and reemerged into the world of sun and light, I was surprised to find the sun sinking and the light going red. Somehow the whole day had slipped away. At the pub my dad was waiting for me, a black-as-night beer and his open laptop on the table in front of him. I sat down and swiped his beer before he’d had a chance to even look up from typing.

  “Oh, my sweet lord,” I sputtered, choking down a mouthful, “what is this? Fermented motor oil?”

  “Just about,” he said, laughing, and then snatched it back. “It’s not like American beer. Not that you’d know what that tastes like, right?”

  “Absolutely not,” I said with a wink, even though it was true. My dad liked to believe I was as popular and adventuresome as he was at my age—a myth it had always seemed easiest to perpetuate.

  I underwent a brief interrogation about how I’d gotten to the house and who had taken me there, and because the easiest kind of lying is when you leave things out of a story rather than make them up, I passed with flying colors. I conveniently forgot to mention that Worm and Dylan had tricked me into wading through sheep excrement and then bailed out a half-mile from our destination. Dad seemed pleased that I’d already managed to meet a couple kids my own age; I guess I also forgot to mention the part about them hating me.

  “So how was the house?”

  “Trashed.”

  He winced. “Guess it’s been a long time since your Grandpa lived there, huh?”

  “Yeah. Or anyone.”

  He closed the laptop, a sure sign I was about to receive his full attention. “I can see you’re disappointed.”

  “Well, I didn’t come thousands of miles looking for a house full of creepy garbage.”

  “So what’re you going to do?”

  “Find people to talk to. Someone will know what happened to the kids who used to live there. I figure a few of them must still be alive, on the mainland if not around here. In a nursing home or something.”

  “Sure. That’s an idea.” He didn’t sound convinced, though. There was an odd pause, and then he said, “So do you feel like you’re starting to get a better handle on who your grandpa was, being here?”

  I thought about it. “I don’t know. I guess so. It’s just an island, you know?”

  He nodded. “Exactly.”

  “What about you?”

  “Me?” He shrugged. “I gave up trying to understand my father a long time ago.”

  “That’s sad. Weren’t you interested?”

  “Sure I was. Then, after a while, I wasn’t anymore.”

  I could feel the conversation going in a direction I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, but I persisted anyway. “Why not?”

  “When someone won’t let you in, eventually you stop knocking. Know what I mean?”

  He hardly ever talked like this. Maybe it was the beer, or that we were so far from home, or maybe he’d decided I was finally old enough to hear this stuff. Whatever the reason, I didn’t want him to stop.

  “But he was your dad. How could you just give up?”

  “It wasn’t me who gave up!” he said a little too loudly, then looked down, em
barrassed and swirled the beer in his glass. “It’s just that—the truth is, I think your grandpa didn’t know how to be a dad, but he felt like he had to be one anyway, because none of his brothers or sisters survived the war. So he dealt with it by being gone all the time—on hunting trips, business trips, you name it. And even when he was around, it was like he wasn’t.”

  “Is this about that one Halloween?”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “You know—from the picture.”

  It was an old story, and it went like this: It was Halloween. My dad was four or five years old and had never been trick-or-treating, and Grandpa Portman had promised to take him when he got off work. My grandmother had bought my dad this ridiculous pink bunny costume, and he put it on and sat by the driveway waiting for Grandpa Portman to come home from five o’clock until nightfall, but he never did. Grandma was so mad that she took a picture of my dad crying in the street just so she could show my grandfather what a huge asshole he was. Needless to say, that picture has long been an object of legend among members of my family, and a great embarrassment to my father.

  “It was a lot more than just one Halloween,” he grumbled. “Really, Jake, you were closer to him than I ever was. I don’t know—there was just something unspoken between the two of you.”

  I didn’t know how to respond. Was he jealous of me?

  “Why are you telling me this?”

  “Because you’re my son, and I don’t want you to get hurt.”

  “Hurt how?”

  He paused. Outside the clouds shifted, the last rays of daylight throwing our shadows against the wall. I got a sick feeling in my stomach, like when your parents are about to tell you they’re splitting up, but you know it before they even open their mouths.

  “I never dug too deep with your grandpa because I was afraid of what I’d find,” he said finally.

  “You mean about the war?”

  “No. Your grandpa kept those secrets because they were painful. I understood that. I mean about the traveling, him being gone all the time. What he was really doing. I think—your aunt and I both thought—that there was another woman. Maybe more than one.”

 
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