Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

  “I have to move you,” I told him, sliding one arm under his back and another under his legs. I began to lift, but he moaned and went rigid, so I stopped. I couldn’t bear to hurt him. I couldn’t leave him either, and there was nothing to do but wait, so I gently brushed loose soil from his arms and face and thinning white hair. That’s when I noticed his lips moving.

  His voice was barely audible, something less than a whisper. I leaned down and put my ear to his lips. He was mumbling, fading in and out of lucidity, shifting between English and Polish.

  “I don’t understand,” I whispered. I repeated his name until his eyes seemed to focus on me, and then he drew a sharp breath and said, quietly but clearly, “Go to the island, Yakob. Here it’s not safe.”

  It was the old paranoia. I squeezed his hand and assured him we were fine, he was going to be fine. That was twice in one day that I’d lied to him.

  I asked him what happened, what animal had hurt him, but he wasn’t listening. “Go to the island,” he repeated. “You’ll be safe there. Promise me.”

  “I will. I promise.” What else could I say?

  “I thought I could protect you,” he said. “I should’ve told you a long time ago …” I could see the life going out of him.

  “Told me what?” I said, choking back tears.

  “There’s no time,” he whispered. Then he raised his head off the ground, trembling with the effort, and breathed into my ear: “Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940.” I nodded, but he could see that I didn’t understand. With his last bit of strength, he added, “Emerson—the letter. Tell them what happened, Yakob.”

  With that he sank back, spent and fading. I told him I loved him. And then he seemed to disappear into himself, his gaze drifting past me to the sky, bristling now with stars.

  A moment later Ricky crashed out of the underbrush. He saw the old man limp in my arms and fell back a step. “Oh man. Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus,” he said, rubbing his face with his hands, and as he babbled about finding a pulse and calling the cops and did you see anything in the woods, the strangest feeling came over me. I let go of my grandfather’s body and stood up, every nerve ending tingling with an instinct I didn’t know I had. There was something in the woods, all right—I could feel it.

  There was no moon and no movement in the underbrush but our own, and yet somehow I knew just when to raise my flashlight and just where to aim it, and for an instant in that narrow cut of light I saw a face that seemed to have been transplanted directly from the nightmares of my childhood. It stared back with eyes that swam in dark liquid, furrowed trenches of carbon-black flesh loose on its hunched frame, its mouth hinged open grotesquely so that a mass of long eel-like tongues could wriggle out. I shouted something and then it twisted and was gone, shaking the brush and drawing Ricky’s attention. He raised his .22 and fired, pap-pap-pap-pap, saying, “What was that? What the hell was that?” But he hadn’t seen it and I couldn’t speak to tell him, frozen in place as I was, my dying flashlight flickering over the blank woods. And then I must’ve blacked out because he was saying Jacob, Jake, hey Ed areyouokayorwhat, and that’s the last thing I remember.

  I spent the months following my grandfather’s death cycling through a purgatory of beige waiting rooms and anonymous offices, analyzed and interviewed, talked about just out of earshot, nodding when spoken to, repeating myself, the object of a thousand pitying glances and knitted brows. My parents treated me like a breakable heirloom, afraid to fight or fret in front of me lest I shatter.

  I was plagued by wake-up-screaming nightmares so bad that I had to wear a mouth guard to keep from grinding my teeth into nubs as I slept. I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing it—that tentacle-mouth horror in the woods. I was convinced it had killed my grandfather and that it would soon return for me. Sometimes that sick panicky feeling would flood over me like it did that night and I’d be sure that nearby, lurking in a stand of dark trees, beyond the next car in a parking lot, behind the garage where I kept my bike, it was waiting.

  My solution was to stop leaving the house. For weeks I refused even to venture into the driveway to collect the morning paper. I slept in a tangle of blankets on the laundry room floor, the only part of the house with no windows and also a door that locked from the inside. That’s where I spent the day of my grandfather’s funeral, sitting on the dryer with my laptop, trying to lose myself in online games.

  I blamed myself for what happened. If only I’d believed him was my endless refrain. But I hadn’t believed him, and neither had anyone else, and now I knew how he must’ve felt because no one believed me, either. My version of events sounded perfectly rational until I was forced to say the words aloud, and then it sounded insane, particularly on the day I had to say them to the police officer who came to our house. I told him everything that had happened, even about the creature, as he sat nodding across the kitchen table, writing nothing in his spiral notebook. When I finished all he said was, “Great, thanks,” and then turned to my parents and asked if I’d “been to see anyone.” As if I wouldn’t know what that meant. I told him I had another statement to make and then held up my middle finger and walked out.

  My parents yelled at me for the first time in weeks. It was kind of a relief, actually—that old sweet sound. I yelled some ugly things back. That they were glad Grandpa Portman was dead. That I was the only one who’d really loved him.

  The cop and my parents talked in the driveway for a while, and then the cop drove off only to come back an hour later with a man who introduced himself as a sketch artist. He’d brought a big drawing pad and asked me to describe the creature again, and as I did he sketched it, stopping occasionally to ask for clarifications.

  “How many eyes did it have?”


  “Gotcha,” he said, as if monsters were a perfectly normal thing for a police sketch artist to be drawing.

  As an attempt to placate me, it was pretty transparent. The biggest giveaway was when he tried to give me the finished sketch.

  “Don’t you need this for your files or something?” I asked him.

  He exchanged raised eyebrows with the cop. “Of course. What was I thinking?”

  It was totally insulting.

  Even my best and only friend Ricky didn’t believe me, and he’d been there. He swore up and down that he hadn’t seen any creature in the woods that night—even though I’d shined my flashlight right at it—which is just what he told the cops. He’d heard barking, though. We both had. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when the police concluded that a pack of feral dogs had killed my grandfather. Apparently they’d been spotted elsewhere and had taken bites out of a woman who’d been walking in Century Woods the week before. All at night, mind you. “Which is exactly when the creatures are hardest to see!” I said. But Ricky just shook his head and muttered something about me needing a “brain-shrinker.”

  “You mean head-shrinker,” I replied, “and thanks a lot. It’s great to have such supportive friends.” We were sitting on my roof deck watching the sun set over the Gulf, Ricky coiled like a spring in an unreasonably expensive Adirondack chair my parents had brought back from a trip to Amish country, his legs folded beneath him and arms crossed tight, chain-smoking cigarettes with a kind of grim determination. He always seemed vaguely uncomfortable at my house, but I could tell by the way his eyes slid off me whenever he looked in my direction that now it wasn’t my parents’ wealth that was making him uneasy, but me.

  “Whatever, I’m just being straight with you,” he said. “Keep talking about monsters and they’re gonna put you away. Then you really will be Special Ed.”

  “Don’t call me that.”

  He flicked away his cigarette and spat a huge glistening wad over the railing.

  “Were you just smoking and chewing tobacco at the same time?”

  “What are you, my mom?”

  “Do I look like I blow truckers for food stamps?”

>   Ricky was a connoisseur of your-mom jokes, but this was apparently more than he could take. He sprang out of the chair and shoved me so hard I almost fell off the roof. I yelled at him to get out, but he was already going.

  It was months before I’d see him again. So much for having friends.

  * * *

  Eventually, my parents did take me to a brain-shrinker—a quiet, olive-skinned man named Dr. Golan. I didn’t put up a fight. I knew I needed help.

  I thought I’d be a tough case, but Dr. Golan made surprisingly quick work of me. The calm, affectless way he explained things was almost hypnotizing, and within two sessions he’d convinced me that the creature had been nothing more than the product of my overheated imagination; that the trauma of my grandfather’s death had made me see something that wasn’t really there. It was Grandpa Portman’s stories that had planted the creature in my mind to begin with, Dr. Golan explained, so it only made sense that, kneeling there with his body in my arms and reeling from the worst shock of my young life, I had conjured up my grandfather’s own bogeyman.

  There was even a name for it: acute stress reaction. “I don’t see anything cute about it,” my mother said when she heard my shiny new diagnosis. Her joke didn’t bother me, though. Almost anything sounded better than crazy.

  Just because I no longer believed the monsters were real didn’t mean I was better, though. I still suffered from nightmares. I was twitchy and paranoid, bad enough at interacting with other people that my parents hired a tutor so that I only had to go to school on days I felt up to it. They also—finally—let me quit Smart Aid. “Feeling better” became my new job.

  Pretty soon, I was determined to be fired from this one, too. Once the small matter of my temporary madness had been cleared up, Dr. Golan’s function seemed mainly to consist of writing prescriptions. Still having nightmares? I’ve got something for that. Panic attack on the school bus? This should do the trick. Can’t sleep? Let’s up the dosage. All those pills were making me fat and stupid, and I was still miserable, getting only three or four hours of sleep a night. That’s why I started lying to Dr. Golan. I pretended to be fine when anyone who looked at me could see the bags under my eyes and the way I jumped like a nervous cat at sudden noises. One week I faked an entire dream journal, making my dreams sound bland and simple, the way a normal person’s should be. One dream was about going to the dentist. In another I was flying. Two nights in a row, I told him, I’d dreamed I was naked in school.

  Then he stopped me. “What about the creatures?”

  I shrugged. “No sign of them. Guess that means I’m getting better, huh?”

  Dr. Golan tapped his pen for a moment and then wrote something down. “I hope you’re not just telling me what you think I want to hear.”

  “Of course not,” I said, my gaze skirting the framed degrees on his wall, all attesting to his expertness in various subdisciplines of psychology, including, I’m sure, how to tell when an acutely stressed teenager is lying to you.

  “Let’s be real for a minute.” He set down his pen. “You’re telling me you didn’t have the dream even one night this week?”

  I’d always been a terrible liar. Rather than humiliate myself, I copped to it. “Well,” I muttered, “maybe one.”

  The truth was that I’d had the dream every night that week. With minor variations, it always went like this: I’m crouched in the corner of my grandfather’s bedroom, amber dusk-light retreating from the windows, pointing a pink plastic BB rifle at the door. An enormous glowing vending machine looms where the bed should be, filled not with candy but rows of razor-sharp tactical knives and armor-piercing pistols. My grandfather’s there in an old British army uniform, feeding the machine dollar bills, but it takes a lot to buy a gun and we’re running out of time. Finally, a shiny .45 spins toward the glass, but before it falls it gets stuck. He swears in Yiddish, kicks the machine, then kneels down and reaches inside to try and grab it, but his arm gets caught. That’s when they come, their long black tongues slithering up the outside of the glass, looking for a way in. I point the BB gun at them and pull the trigger, but nothing happens. Meanwhile Grandpa Portman is shouting like a crazy person—find the bird, find the loop, Yakob vai don’t you understand you goddamned stupid yutzi—and then the windows shatter and glass rains in and the black tongues are all over us, and that’s generally when I wake up in a puddle of sweat, my heart doing hurdles and my stomach tied in knots.

  Even though the dream was always the same and we’d been over it a hundred times, Dr. Golan still made me describe it in every session. It’s like he was cross-examining my subconscious, looking for some clue he might have missed the ninety-ninth time around.

  “And in the dream, what’s your grandfather saying?”

  “The same stuff as always,” I said. “About the bird and the loop and the grave.”

  “His last words.”

  I nodded.

  Dr. Golan tented his fingers and pressed them to his chin, the very picture of a thoughtful brain-shrinker. “Any new ideas about what they might mean?”

  “Yeah. Jack and shit.”

  “Come on. You don’t mean that.”

  I wanted to act like I didn’t care about the last words, but I did. They’d been eating away at me almost as much as the nightmares. I felt like I owed it to my grandfather not to dismiss the last thing he said to anyone in the world as delusional nonsense, and Dr. Golan was convinced that understanding them might help purge my awful dreams. So I tried.

  Some of what Grandpa Portman had said made sense, like the thing about wanting me to go to the island. He was worried that the monsters would come after me, and thought the island was the only place I could escape them, like he had as a kid. After that he’d said, “I should’ve told you,” but because there was no time to tell me whatever it was he should’ve told me, I wondered if he hadn’t done the next best thing and left a trail of bread crumbs leading to someone who could tell me—someone who knew his secret. I figured that’s what all the cryptic-sounding stuff about the loop and the grave and the letter was.

  For a while I thought “the loop” could be a street in Circle Village—a neighborhood that was nothing but looping cul-de-sacs—and that “Emerson” might be a person my grandfather had sent letters to. An old war buddy he’d kept in touch with or something. Maybe this Emerson lived in Circle Village, in one of its loops, by a graveyard, and one of the letters he’d kept was dated September third, 1940, and that was the one I needed to read. I knew it sounded crazy, but crazier things have turned out to be true. So after hitting dead-ends online I went to the Circle Village community center, where the old folks gather to play shuffleboard and discuss their most recent surgeries, to ask where the graveyard was and whether anyone knew a Mr. Emerson. They looked at me like I had a second head growing out of my neck, baffled that a teenaged person was speaking to them. There was no graveyard in Circle Village and no one in the neighborhood named Emerson and no street called Loop Drive or Loop Avenue or Loop anything. It was a complete bust.

  Still, Dr. Golan wouldn’t let me quit. He suggested I look into Ralph Waldo Emerson, a supposedly famous old poet. “Emerson wrote his fair share of letters,” he said. “Maybe that’s what your grandfather was referring to.” It seemed like a shot in the dark, but, just to get Golan off my back, one afternoon I had my dad drop me at the library so I could check it out. I quickly discovered that Ralph Waldo Emerson had indeed written lots of letters that had been published. For about three minutes I got really excited, like I was close to a breakthrough, and then two things became apparent: first, that Ralph Waldo Emerson had lived and died in the 1800s and therefore could not have written any letters dated September third, 1940, and, second, that his writing was so dense and arcane that it couldn’t possibly have held the slightest interest for my grandfather, who wasn’t exactly an avid reader. I discovered Emerson’s soporific qualities the hard way, by falling asleep with my face in the book, drooling all over an essay called €
œSelf-Reliance” and having the vending-machine dream for the sixth time that week. I woke up screaming and was unceremoniously ejected from the library, cursing Dr. Golan and his stupid theories all the while.

  The last straw came a few days later, when my family decided it was time to sell Grandpa Portman’s house. Before prospective buyers could be allowed inside, though, the place had to be cleaned out. On the advice of Dr. Golan, who thought it would be good for me to “confront the scene of my trauma,” I was enlisted to help my dad and Aunt Susie sort through the detritus. For a while after we got to the house my dad kept taking me aside to make sure I was okay. Surprisingly, I seemed to be, despite the scraps of police tape clinging to the shrubs and the torn screen on the lanai flapping in the breeze; these things—like the rented Dumpster that stood on the curb, waiting to swallow what remained of my grandfather’s life—made me sad, not scared.

  Once it became clear I wasn’t about to suffer a mouth-frothing freak-out, we got down to business. Armed with garbage bags we proceeded grimly through the house, emptying shelves and cabinets and crawl spaces, discovering geometries of dust beneath objects unmoved for years. We built pyramids of things that could be saved or salvaged and pyramids of things destined for the Dumpster. My aunt and father were not sentimental people, and the Dumpster pile was always the largest. I lobbied hard to keep certain things, like the eight-foot stack of water-damaged National Geographic magazines teetering in a corner of the garage—how many afternoons had I spent poring over them, imagining myself among the mud men of New Guinea or discovering a cliff-top castle in the kingdom of Bhutan?—but I was always overruled. Neither was I allowed to keep my grandfather’s collection of vintage bowling shirts (“They’re embarrassing,” my dad claimed), his big band and swing 78s (“Someone will pay good money for those”), or the contents of his massive, still-locked weapons cabinet (“You’re kidding, right? I hope you’re kidding”).