Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
“His mack, though,” the bearded one said, reaching out to pinch the sleeve of my jacket. “You’d have a helluva time finding that in a shop. Army—gotta be.”
“Look,” I said, “I’m not in the army, and I’m not trying to pull anything on you, I swear! I just want to find my dad, get my stuff, and—”
“American, my arse!” bellowed a fat man. He peeled his considerable girth off a stool to stand between me and the door, toward which I’d been slowly backing. “His accent sounds rubbish to me. I’ll wager he’s a Jerry spy!”
“I’m not a spy,” I said weakly. “Just lost.”
“Got that right,” he said with a laugh. “I say we get the truth out of ’im the old-fashioned way. With a rope!”
Drunken shouts of assent. I couldn’t tell if they were being serious or just “taking a piss,” but I didn’t much care to stick around and find out. One undiluted instinct coursed through the anxious muddle in my brain: Run. It would be a lot easier to figure out what the hell was going on without a roomful of drunks threatening to lynch me. Of course, running away would only convince them of my guilt, but I didn’t care.
I tried to step around the fat man.
He made a grab for me, but slow and drunk is no match for fast and scared shitless. I faked left and then dodged around him to the right. He howled with rage as the rest unglued themselves from barstools to lunge at me, but I slipped through their fingers and ran out the door and into the bright afternoon.
* * *
I charged down the street, my feet pounding divots into the gravel, the angry voices gradually fading behind me. At the first corner I made a skidding turn to escape their line of sight, cutting through a muddy yard, where squawking chickens dove out of my way, and then an open lot, where a line of women stood waiting to pump water from an old well, their heads turning as I flew past. A thought I had no time to entertain flitted through my head—Hey, where’d the Waiting Woman go?—but then I came to a low wall and had to concentrate on vaulting it—plant the hand, lift the feet, swing over. I landed in a busy path where I was nearly run down by a speeding cart. The driver yelled something derogatory about my mother as his horse’s flank brushed my chest, leaving hoof prints and a wheel track just inches from my toes.
I had no idea what was happening. I understood only two things: that I was quite possibly in the midst of losing my mind, and that I needed to get away from people until I could figure out whether or not I actually was. To that end, I dashed into an alley behind two rows of cottages, where it seemed there would be lots of hiding places, and made for the edge of town. I slowed to a fast walk, hoping that a muddy and bedraggled American boy who was not running would attract somewhat less attention than one who was.
My attempt to act normal was not helped by the fact that every little noise or fleeting movement made me jump. I nodded and waved to a woman hanging laundry, but like everyone else she just stared at me. I walked faster.
I heard a strange noise behind me and ducked into an outhouse. As I waited there, hunkering behind the half-closed door, my eyes scanned the graffitied walls.
Dooleys a buggerloving arsehumper.
Wot, no sugar?
Finally, a dog slinked by, trailed by a litter of yapping puppies. I let out my breath and began to relax a little. Collecting my nerves, I stepped back into the alley.
Something grabbed me by the hair. Before I’d even had a chance to cry out, a hand whipped around from behind and pressed something sharp to my throat.
“Scream and I’ll cut you,” came a voice.
Keeping the blade to my neck, my assailant pushed me against the outhouse wall and stepped around to face me. To my great surprise, it wasn’t one of the men from the pub. It was the girl. She wore a simple white dress and a hard expression, her face strikingly pretty even though she appeared to be giving serious thought to gouging out my windpipe.
“What are you?” she hissed.
“An—uh—I’m an American,” I stammered, not quite sure what she was asking. “I’m Jacob.”
She pressed the knife harder against my throat, her hand shaking. She was scared—which meant she was dangerous. “What were you doing in the house?” she demanded. “Why are you chasing me?”
“I just wanted to talk to you! Don’t kill me!”
She fixed me with a scowl. “Talk to me about what?”
“About the house—about the people who lived there.”
“Who sent you here?”
“My grandfather. His name was Abraham Portman.”
Her mouth fell open. “That’s a lie!” she cried, her eyes flashing. “You think I don’t know what you are? I wasn’t born yesterday! Open your eyes—let me see your eyes!”
“I am! They are!” I opened my eyes as wide as I could. She stood on tiptoes and stared into them, then stamped her foot and shouted, “No, your real eyes! Those fakes don’t fool me any more than your ridiculous lie about Abe!”
“It’s not a lie—and these are my eyes!” She was pushing so hard against my windpipe that it was difficult to breathe. I was glad the knife was dull or she surely would’ve cut me. “Look, I’m not whatever it is you think I am,” I croaked. “I can prove it!”
Her hand relaxed a little. “Then prove it, or I’ll water the grass with your blood!”
“I have something right here.” I reached into my jacket.
She leapt back and shouted at me to stop, raising her blade so that it hung quivering in the air just between my eyes.
“It’s only a letter! Calm down!”
She lowered the blade back to my throat, and I slowly drew Miss Peregrine’s letter and photo from my jacket, holding it for her to see. “The letter’s part of the reason I came here. My grandfather gave it to me. It’s from the Bird. That’s what you call your headmistress, isn’t it?”
“This doesn’t prove anything!” she said, though she’d hardly glanced at it. “And how do you know so bloody much about us?”
“I told you, my grandfather—”
She slapped the letter out of my hands. “I don’t want to hear another word of that rubbish!” Apparently, I’d touched a nerve. She went quiet for a moment, face pinched with frustration, as if she were deciding how best to dispose of my body once she’d followed through on her threats. Before she could decide, though, shouts erupted from the other end of the alley. We turned to see the men from the pub running toward us, armed with wooden clubs and farm implements.
“What this? What’ve you done?”
“You’re not the only person who wants to kill me!”
She took the knife from my throat and held it at my side instead, then grabbed me by the collar. “You are now my prisoner. Do exactly as I say or you’ll regret it!”
I made no argument. I didn’t know if my chances were any better in the hands of this unbalanced girl than with that slavering mob of club-wielding drunks, but at least with her I figured I had a shot at getting some answers.
She shoved me and we were off and running down a connecting alley. Halfway to the end she darted to one side and pulled me after her, both of us ducking under a line of sheets and hopping a chicken-wire fence into the yard of a little cottage.
“In here,” she whispered and, looking around to make sure we hadn’t been seen, pushed me through a door into a cramped hovel that reeked of peat smoke.
There was no one inside save an old dog asleep on a sofa. He opened one eye to look at us, didn’t think much of what he saw, and went back to sleep. We darted to a window that looked out on the street and flattened ourselves against the wall next to it. We stood there listening, the girl careful to keep a hand on my arm and her knife at my side.
A minute passed. The men’s voices seemed to fade and then return; it was hard to tell where they were. My eyes drifted around the little room. It seemed excessively rustic, even for Cairnholm. Tilting in a corner was a stack of hand-woven baskets. A chair upholstered in burlap stood before a giant coal-fired cooking range cast
from iron. Hung on the wall opposite us was a calendar, and though it was too dim to read from where we stood, just looking at it sparked a bizarre thought.
“What year is it?”
The girl told me to shut up.
“I’m serious,” I whispered.
She regarded me strangely for a moment. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, but go have a look for yourself,” she said, pushing me toward the calendar.
The top half was a black-and-white photo of a tropical scene, full-bodied girls with enormous bangs and vintage-looking swimsuits smiling on a beach. Printed above the seam was “September 1940.” The first and second days of the month had been crossed out.
A detached numbness spread over me. I considered all the strange things I’d seen that morning: the bizarre and sudden change in the weather; the island I thought I’d known, now populated by strangers; how the style of everything around me looked old but the things themselves were new. It could all be explained by the calendar on the wall.
September 3, 1940. But how?
And then one of the last things my grandfather said came to me. On the other side of the old man’s grave. It was something I’d never been able to figure out. There was a time I’d wondered if he’d meant ghosts—that since all the children he’d known here were dead, I’d have to go to the other side of the grave to find them—but that was too poetic. My grandfather was literal minded, not a man who traded in metaphor or suggestion. He’d given me straightforward directions that he simply hadn’t had time to explain: “The Old Man,” I realized, was what the locals called the bog boy, and his grave was the cairn. And earlier today I had gone inside it and come out someplace else: September third, 1940.
All this occurred to me in the time it took for the room to turn upside down and my knees to go out from under me, and for everything to fade into pulsing, velvety black.
* * *
I awoke on the floor with my hands tied to the cooking range. The girl was pacing nervously and appeared to be having an animated conversation with herself. I kept my eyes most of the way shut and listened.
“He must be a wight,” she was saying. “Why else would he have been snooping around the old house like a burglar?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” someone else said, “but neither, it seems, does he.” So she wasn’t talking to herself, after all—though from where I was lying, I couldn’t see the young man who’d spoken. “You say he didn’t even realize he was in a loop?”
“See for yourself,” she said, gesturing toward me. “Can you imagine any relative of Abe’s being so perfectly clueless?”
“Can you imagine a wight?” said the young man. I turned my head slightly, scanning the room, but still I didn’t see him.
“I can imagine a wight faking it,” the girl replied.
The dog, awake now, trotted over and began to lick my face. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to ignore it, but the tongue bath he gave me was so slobbery and gross that I finally had to sit up just to rescue myself.
“Well, look who’s up!” the girl said. She clapped her hands, giving me a sarcastic round of applause. “That was quite the performance you gave earlier. I particularly enjoyed the fainting. I’m sure the theater lost a fine actor when you chose to devote yourself instead to murder and cannibalism.”
I opened my mouth to protest my innocence—and stopped when I noticed a cup floating toward me.
“Have some water,” the young man said. “Can’t have you dying before we get you back to the headmistress, now can we?”
His voice seemed to come from the empty air. I reached for the cup, and as my pinky brushed an unseen hand, I nearly dropped it.
“He’s clumsy,” the young man said.
“You’re invisible,” I replied dumbly.
“Indeed. Millard Nullings, at your service.”
“Don’t tell him your name!” the girl cried.
“And this is Emma,” he continued. “She’s a bit paranoid, as I’m sure you’ve gathered.”
Emma glared at him—or at the space I imagined him to occupy—but said nothing. The cup shook in my hand. I began another fumbling attempt to explain myself but was interrupted by angry voices from outside the window.
“Quiet!” Emma hissed. Millard’s footsteps moved to the window, and the blinds parted an inch.
“What’s happening?” asked Emma.
“They’re searching the houses,” he replied. “We can’t stay here much longer.”
“Well, we can’t very well go out there!”
“I think perhaps we can,” he said. “Just to be certain, though, let me consult my book.” The blinds fell closed again and I saw a small leather-bound notebook rise from a table and crack open in midair. Millard hummed as he flipped the pages. A minute later he snapped the book shut.
“As I suspected!” he said. “We have only to wait a minute or so and then we can walk straight out the front door.”
“Are you mad?” Emma said. “We’ll have every one of those knuckle-draggers on us with brick bats!”
“Not if we’re less interesting than what’s about to happen,” he replied. “I assure you, this is the best opportunity we’ll have for hours.”
I was untied from the range and led to the door, where we crouched, waiting. Then came a noise from outside even louder than the men’s shouting: engines. Dozens, by the sound of it.
“Oh! Millard, that’s brilliant!” cried Emma.
He sniffed. “And you said my studies were a waste of time.”
Emma put her hand on the doorknob and then turned to me. “Take my arm. Don’t run. Act like nothing’s the matter.” She put away her knife but assured me that if I tried to escape I’d see it again—just before she killed me with it.
“How do I know you won’t anyway?”
She thought for a moment. “You don’t.” And then she pushed open the door.
* * *
The street outside was thronged with people, not only the men from the pub, whom I spotted immediately just down the block, but grim-faced shopkeepers and women and cart drivers who’d stopped what they were doing to stand in the middle of the road and crane their heads toward the sky. There, not far overhead, a squadron of Nazi fighter planes was roaring by in perfect formation. I’d seen photos of planes like these at Martin’s museum, in a display titled “Cairnholm under Siege.” How strange it must be, I thought, to find yourself, in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, suddenly in the shadow of enemy death machines that could rain fire down upon you at a moment’s notice.
We crossed the street as casually as possible, Emma clutching my arm in a death grip. We nearly made it to the alley on the other side before someone finally noticed us. I heard a shout and we turned to see the men start after us.
We ran. The alley was narrow and lined with stables. We’d covered half its length when I heard Millard say, “I’ll hang back and trip them up! Meet me behind the pub in precisely five and a half minutes!”
His footsteps fell away behind us, and when we’d reached the end of the alley Emma stopped me. We looked back to see a length of rope uncoil itself and float across the gravel at ankle height. It pulled taut just as the mob reached it, and they went sprawling over it and into the mud, a tangled heap of flailing limbs. Emma let out a cheer, and I was almost certain I could hear Millard laughing.
We ran on. I didn’t know why Emma had agreed to meet Millard at the Priest Hole, since it was in the direction of the harbor, not the house. But since I also couldn’t explain how Millard had known exactly when those planes were going to fly over, I didn’t bother asking. I was even more baffled when, instead of sneaking around the back, any hope of our passing undetected was dashed by Emma pushing me right through the front door.
There was no one inside but the bartender. I turned and hid my face.
“Barman!” Emma said. “When’s the tap open round here? I’m thirsty as a bloody mermaid!”
He laughed. “I ain’t i
n the custom of servin’ little girls.”
“Never mind that!” she cried, slapping her hand on the bar. “Pour me a quadruple dram of your finest cask-strength whiskey. And none of that frightful watered-down piss you generally serve!”
I began to get the feeling she was just messing around—taking the piss, I should say—trying to one-up Millard and his rope-across-the-alley trick.
The bartender leaned across the bar. “So it’s the hard stuff yer wantin’, is it?” he said, grinning lecherously. “Just don’t let your mum and dad hear, or I’ll have the priest and constable after me both.” He fetched a bottle of something dark and evil looking and began pouring her a tumbler full. “What about your friend, here? Drunk as a deacon already, I suppose?”
I pretended to study the fireplace.
“Shy one, ain’t he?” said the barman. “Where’s he from?”
“Says he’s from the future,” Emma replied. “I say he’s mad as a box of weasels.”
A strange look came over the bartender’s face. “Says he’s what?” he asked. And then he must’ve recognized me because he gave a shout, slammed down the whiskey bottle, and began to scramble toward me.
I was poised to run, but before the bartender could even get out from behind the bar Emma had upended the drink he’d poured her, spilling brown liquor everywhere. Then she did something amazing. She held her hand palm-side down just above the alcohol-soaked bar, and a moment later a wall of foot-high flames erupted.
The bartender howled and began beating at the wall of fire with his towel.
“This way, prisoner!” Emma announced, and, hooking my arm, she pulled me toward the fireplace. “Now give me a hand! Pry and lift!”
She knelt and wedged her fingers into a crack that ran along the floor. I jammed my fingers in beside hers, and together we lifted a small section, revealing a hole about the width of my shoulders: the priest hole. As smoke filled the room and the bartender struggled to put out the flames, we lowered ourselves down one after another and disappeared.
The priest hole was little more than a shaft that dropped about four feet to a crawl space. It was pure black down there, but the next thing I knew it was filled with soft orange light. Emma had made a torch of her hand, a tiny ball of flame that seemed to hover just above her palm. I gaped at it, all else forgotten.