Miss peregrines home for.., p.9
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       Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, p.9

         Part #1 of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series by Ransom Riggs
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  I took a step closer and swept my phone around. Out of the darkness emerged a wall of shelves lined with glass jars. They were all shapes and sizes, mottled with dust and filled with gelatinous-looking things suspended in cloudy fluid. I thought of the kitchen and the exploded jars of fruits and vegetables I’d found there. Maybe the temperature was more stable down here, and that’s why these had survived.

  But then I got closer still, and looked a little harder, and realized they weren’t fruits and vegetables at all, but organs. Brains. Hearts. Lungs. Eyes. All pickled in some kind of home-brewed formaldehyde, which explained the terrific stench. I gagged and stumbled away from them into the dark, simultaneously grossed out and baffled. What kind of place was this? Those jars were something you might expect to find in the basement of a fly-by-night medical school, not a house full of children. If not for all the wonderful things Grandpa Portman had said about this place, I might’ve wondered if Miss Peregrine had rescued the children just to harvest their organs.

  When I’d recovered a little, I looked up to see another gleam ahead of me—not a reflection of my phone, but a weak glimmer of daylight. It had to be coming from the hole I’d made. I soldiered on, breathing through my pulled-up shirt and keeping away from the walls and any other ghastly surprises they might’ve harbored.

  The gleam led me around a corner and into a small room with part of the ceiling caved in. Daylight streamed through the hole onto a mound of splintered floorboards and broken glass from which rose coils of silty dust, pieces of torn carpet plastered here and there like scraps of desiccated meat. Beneath the debris I could hear the scrabble of tiny feet, some rodentine dark-dweller that had survived the implosion of its world. In the midst of it all lay the demolished trunk, photographs scattered around it like confetti.

  I picked my way through the wreckage, high-stepping javelins of wood and planks studded with rusting nails. Kneeling, I began to salvage what I could from the pile. I felt like a rescue worker, plucking faces from the debris, brushing away glass and wood rot. And though part of me wanted to hurry—there was no telling if or when the rest of the floor might collapse on my head—I couldn’t stop myself from studying them.

  At first glance, they looked like the kind of pictures you’d find in any old family album. There were shots of people cavorting on beaches and smiling on back porches, vistas from around the island, and lots of kids, posing in singles and pairs, informal snapshots and formal portraits taken in front of backdrops, their subjects clutching dead-eyed dolls, like they’d gone to Glamour Shots in some creepy turn-of-the-century shopping mall. But what I found really creepy wasn’t the zombie dolls or the children’s weird haircuts or how they never, ever seemed to smile, but that the more I studied the pictures, the more familiar they began to seem. They shared a certain nightmarish quality with my grandfather’s old photos, especially the ones he’d kept hidden in the bottom of his cigar box, as if somehow they’d all come from the same batch.

  There was, for instance, a photo of two young women posed before a not-terribly-convincing painted backdrop of the ocean. Not so strange in and of itself; the unsettling thing was how they were posed. Both had their backs to the camera. Why would you go to all the trouble and expense of having your picture taken—portraits were pricey back then—and then turn your back on the camera? I half-expected to find another photo in the debris of the same girls facing forward, revealing grinning skulls for faces.

  Other pictures seemed manipulated in much the same way as some of my grandfather’s had been. One was of a lone girl in a cemetery staring into a reflecting pool—but two girls were reflected back. It reminded me of Grandpa Portman’s photo of the girl “trapped” in a bottle, only whatever darkroom technique had been used wasn’t nearly as fake-looking. Another was of a disconcertingly calm young man whose upper body appeared to be swarming with bees. That would be easy enough to fake, right? Like my grandfather’s picture of the boy lifting what was certainly a boulder made from plaster. Fake rock—fake bees.

  The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I remembered something Grandpa Portman had said about a boy he’d known here in the children’s home—a boy with bees living inside him. Some would fly out every time he opened his mouth, he had said, but they never stung unless Hugh wanted them to.

  I could think of only one explanation. My grandfather’s pictures had come from the trunk that lay smashed before me. I wasn’t certain, though, until I found a picture of the freaks: two masked ruffle-collared kids who seemed to be feeding each other a coil of ribbon. I didn’t know what they were supposed to be, exactly—besides fuel for nightmares; what were they, sadomasochistic ballerinas?—but there was no doubt in my mind that Grandpa Portman had a picture of these same two boys. I’d seen it in his cigar box just a few months ago.

  It couldn’t have been a coincidence, which meant that the photos my grandfather had shown me—that he’d sworn were of children he’d known in this house—had really come from this house. But could that mean, despite the doubts I’d harbored even as an eight-year-old, that the pictures were genuine? What about the fantastic stories that went along with them? That any of them could be true—literally true—seemed unthinkable. And yet, standing there in dusty half-light in that dead house that seemed so alive with ghosts, I thought, maybe …

  Suddenly there came a loud crash from somewhere in the house above me, and I startled so badly that all the pictures slipped from my hands.

  It’s just the house settling, I told myself—or caving in! But as I bent down to gather the photos, the crash came again, and in an instant what meager light had shone through the hole in the floor faded away, and I found myself squatting in inky darkness.

  I heard footsteps, and then voices. I strained to make out what they were saying, but I couldn’t. I didn’t dare move, afraid that the slightest motion would set off a noisy avalanche of debris all around me. I knew that my fear was irrational—it was probably just those dumb rapper kids pulling another prank—but my heart was beating a hundred miles an hour, and some deep animal instinct commanded me to be silent.

  My legs began to go numb. As quietly as I could, I shifted my weight from one leg to the other to get the blood flowing again. A tiny piece of something came loose from the pile and rolled away, making a sound that seemed huge in the silence. The voices went quiet. Then a floorboard creaked right over my head and a little shower of plaster dust sprinkled down. Whoever was up there, they knew exactly where I was.

  I held my breath.

  Then, I heard a girl’s voice say softly, “Abe? Is that you?”

  I thought I’d dreamed it. I waited for the girl to speak again, but for a long moment there was only the sound of rain banking off the roof, like a thousand fingers tapping way off somewhere. Then a lantern glowed to life above me, and I craned my neck to see a half dozen kids kneeling around the craggy jaws of broken floor, peering down.

  I recognized them somehow, though I didn’t know where from. They seemed like faces from a half-remembered dream. Where had I seen them before—and how did they know my grandfather’s name?

  Then it clicked. Their clothes, strange even for Wales. Their pale unsmiling faces. The pictures strewn before me, staring up at me just as the children stared down. Suddenly I understood.

  I’d seen them in the photographs.

  The girl who’d spoken stood up to get a better look at me. In her hands she held a flickering light, which wasn’t a lantern or a candle but seemed to be a ball of raw flame, attended by nothing more than her bare skin. I’d seen her picture not five minutes earlier, and in it she looked much the same as she did now, even cradling the same strange light between her hands.

  I’m Jacob, I wanted to say. I’ve been looking for you. But my jaw had come unhinged, and all I could do was stare.

  The girl’s expression soured. I was wretched looking, damp from rain and dust-covered and squatting in a mound of debris. Whatever she and the other children had been expecting to find
inside this hole in the floor, I was not it.

  A murmur passed among them, and they stood up and quickly scattered. Their sudden movement knocked something loose in me and I found my voice again and shouted for them to wait, but they were already pounding the floorboards toward the door. I tripped through the wreckage and stumbled blindly across the stinking basement to the stairs. But by the time I made it back to the ground floor, where the daylight they’d stolen had somehow returned, they had vanished from the house.

  I bolted outside and down the crumbling brick steps into the grass, screaming, “Wait! Stop!” But they were gone. I scanned the yard, the woods, breathing hard, cursing myself.

  Something snapped beyond the trees. I wheeled around to look and, through a screen of branches, caught a flash of blurred movement—the hem of a white dress. It was her. I crashed into the woods, sprinting after. She took off running down the path.

  I hurdled fallen logs and ducked low branches, chasing her until my lungs burned. She kept trying to lose me, cutting from the path into the trackless forest and back. Finally the woods fell away and we broke into open bogland. I saw my chance. Now she had nowhere to hide—to catch her I had only to pour on the speed—and with me in sneakers and jeans and her in a dress it would be no contest. Just as I started to catch up, though, she made a sudden turn and plunged straight into the bog. I had no choice but to follow.

  Running became impossible. The ground couldn’t be trusted: It kept giving way, tripping me into knee-deep bog holes that soaked my pants and sucked at my legs. The girl, though, seemed to know just where to step, and she pulled farther and farther away, finally disappearing into the mist so that I had only her footprints to follow.

  After she’d lost me, I kept expecting her prints to veer back toward the path, but they plowed ever-deeper into the bog. Then the mist closed behind me and I couldn’t see the path anymore, and I began to wonder if I’d ever find my way out. I tried calling to her—My name is Jacob Portman! I’m Abe’s grandson! I won’t hurt you!—but the fog and the mud seemed to swallow my voice.

  Her footprints led to a mound of stones. It looked like a big gray igloo, but it was a cairn—one of the Neolithic tombs after which Cairnholm was named.

  The cairn was a little taller than me, long and narrow with a rectangular opening in one end, like a door, and it rose from the mud on a tussock of grass. Climbing out of the mire onto the relatively solid ground that ringed it, I saw that the opening was the entrance to a tunnel that burrowed deep inside. Intricate loops and spirals had been carved on either side, ancient hieroglyphs the meaning of which had been lost to the ages. Here lies bog boy, I thought. Or, more likely, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

  But enter I did, because that’s where the girl’s footprints led. Inside, the cairn tunnel was damp and narrow and profoundly dark, so cramped that I could only move forward in a kind of hunchbacked crab-walk. Luckily, enclosed spaces were not one of the many things that scared the hell out of me.

  Imagining the girl frightened and trembling somewhere up ahead, I talked to her as I went along, doing my best to reassure her that I meant no harm. My words came slapping back at me in a disorienting echo. Just as my thighs were starting to ache from the bizarre posture I’d been forced to adopt, the tunnel widened into a chamber, pitch black but big enough that I could stand and stretch my arms to either side without touching a wall.

  I pulled out my phone and once more pressed it into service as a makeshift flashlight. It didn’t take long to size up the place. It was a simple stone-walled chamber about as large as my bedroom—and it was completely empty. There was no girl to be found.

  I was standing there trying to figure out how the hell she’d managed to slip by when something occurred to me—something so obvious that I felt like a fool for having taken this long to realize it. There never was any girl. I’d imagined her, and the rest of them, too. My brain had conjured them up at the very moment I was looking at their pictures. And the sudden, strange darkness that had preceded their arrival? A blackout.

  It was impossible, anyway; those kids had all died a lifetime ago. Even if they hadn’t, it was ridiculous to believe they would still look exactly as they had when the photos were taken. Everything had happened so quickly, though, I never had a chance to stop and wonder if I might be chasing a hallucination.

  I could already predict Dr. Golan’s explanation: That house is such an emotionally loaded place for you, just being inside was enough to trigger a stress reaction. Yeah, he was a psychobabble-spewing prick. But that didn’t make him wrong.

  I turned back, humiliated. Rather than crab-walking, I let go of the last of my dignity and just crawled on my hands and knees toward the gauzy light coming from the mouth of the tunnel. Looking up, I realized I’d seen this view before: in a photograph in Martin’s museum of the place where they’d discovered the bog boy. It was baffling to think that people had once believed this foul-smelling wasteland was a gateway to heaven—and believed it with such conviction that a kid my age was willing to give up his life to get there. What a sad, stupid waste.

  I decided then that I wanted to go home. I didn’t care about the photos in the basement, and I was sick of riddles and mysteries and last words. Indulging my grandfather’s obsession with them had made me worse, not better. It was time to let go.

  I unfolded myself from the cramped cairn tunnel and stepped outside only to be blinded by light. Shielding my eyes, I squinted through split fingers at a world I hardly recognized. It was the same bog and the same path and the same everything as before, but for the first time since my arrival it was bathed in cheery yellow sunlight, the sky a candy blue, no trace of the twisting fog that, for me, had come to define this part of the island. It was warm, too, more like the dog days of summer than the breezy beginnings of it. God, the weather changes fast around here, I thought.

  I slogged back to the path, trying to ignore the skin-crawly feeling of bog-mud gooshing into my socks, and headed for town. Strangely, the path wasn’t muddy at all—as if it had dried out in just a few minutes—but it had been carpet-bombed with so many grapefruit-size animal turds that I couldn’t walk in a straight line. How had I not noticed this earlier? Had I been in some kind of psychotic haze all morning? Was I in one now?

  I didn’t look up from the turdy checkerboard that stretched out before me until I’d crossed the ridge and was coming back into town, which is when I realized where all the mess had come from. Where this morning a battalion of tractors had plied the gravel paths, hauling carts loaded with fish and peat-bricks up and down from the harbor, now those carts were being pulled by horses and mules. The clip-clop of hooves had replaced the growl of engines.

  Missing, too, was the ever-present buzz of diesel generators. Had the island run out of gas in the few hours I’d been gone? And where had the townspeople been hiding all these big animals?

  Also, why was everyone looking at me? Every person I passed stared at me goggle-eyed, stopping whatever they were doing to rubberneck as I walked by. I must look as crazy as I feel, I thought, glancing down to see that I was covered in mud from the waist down and plaster from the waist up, so I ducked my head and walked as fast as I could toward the pub, where at least I could hide in the anonymous gloom until Dad came back for lunch. I decided that when he did, I would tell him straight out that I wanted to go home as soon as possible. If he hesitated, I would admit that I’d been hallucinating, and we’d be on the next ferry, guaranteed.

  Inside the Hole were the usual collection of inebriated men bent over foamy pint glasses and the battered tables and dingy decor I’d come to know as my home away from home. But as I headed for the staircase I heard an unfamiliar voice bark, “Where d’ya think yer going?”

  I turned, one foot on the bottom step, to see the bartender looking me up and down. Only it wasn’t Kev, but a scowling bullet-headed man I didn’t recognize. He wore a bartender’s apron and had a bushy unibrow and a caterpillar mustache that made his face look st
riped.

  I might’ve said, I’m going upstairs to pack my suitcase, and if my dad still won’t take me home I’m going to fake a seizure, but instead I answered, “Just up to my room,” which came out sounding more like a question than a statement of fact.

  “That so?” he said, clapping down the glass he’d been filling. “This look like a hotel to you?”

  Wooden creaks as patrons swiveled around in their stools to get a look at me. I quickly scanned their faces. Not one of them was familiar.

  I’m having a psychotic episode, I thought. Right now. This is what a psychotic episode feels like. Only it didn’t feel like anything. I wasn’t seeing lightning bolts or having palm sweats. It was more like the world was going crazy, not me.

  I told the bartender that there had obviously been some mistake. “My dad and I have the upstairs rooms,” I said. “Look, I’ve got the key,” and I produced it from my pocket as evidence.

  “Lemme see that,” he said, leaning over the counter to snatch it out of my hand. He held it up to the dingy light, eyeing it like a jeweler. “This ain’t our key,” he growled, then slipped it into his own pocket. “Now tell me what you really want up there—and this time, don’t lie!”

  I felt my face go hot. I’d never been called a liar by a nonrelative adult before. “I told you already. We rented those rooms! Just ask Kev if you don’t believe me!”

  “I don’t know no Kev, and I don’t fancy bein’ fed stories,” he said coolly. “There ain’t any rooms to let around here, and the only one lives upstairs is me!”

  I looked around, expecting someone to crack a smile, to let me in on the joke. But the men’s faces were like stone.

  “He’s American,” observed a man sporting a prodigious beard. “Army, could be.”

  “Bollocks,” another one growled. “Look at ’im. He’s practically a fetus!”

 
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