Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Page 16


“Was my grandfather really running from the Nazis when he came here?”
“He was,” she said. “A number of children came to us during those awful years leading up to the war. There was so much upheaval.” She looked pained, as if the memory was still fresh. “I found Abraham at a camp for displaced persons on the mainland. He was a poor, tortured boy, but so strong. I knew at once that he belonged with us.”
I felt relieved; at least that part of his life was as I had understood it to be. There was one more thing I wanted to ask, though, and I didn’t quite know how to put it.
“Was he—my grandfather—was he like …”
“Like us?”
I nodded.
She smiled strangely. “He was like you, Jacob.” And she turned and hobbled toward the stairs.
* * *
Miss Peregrine insisted that I wash off the bog mud before sitting down to dinner, and asked Emma to run me a bath. I think she hoped that by talking to me a little, Emma would start to feel better. But she wouldn’t even look at me. I watched as she ran cold water into the tub and then warmed it with her bare hands, swirling them around until steam rose.
“That is awesome,” I said. But she left without saying a word in response.
Once I’d turned the water thoroughly brown, I toweled off and found a change of clothes hanging from the back of the door—baggy tweed pants, a button-up shirt, and a pair of suspenders that were far too short but that I couldn’t figure out how to adjust. I was left with the choice of wearing the pants either around my ankles or hitched up to my bellybutton. I decided the latter was the lesser of evils, so I went downstairs to have what would likely be the strangest meal of my life while dressed like a clown without makeup.
Dinner was a dizzying blur of names and faces, many of them half-remembered from photographs and my grandfather’s long-ago descriptions. When I came into the dining room, the kids, who’d been clamoring noisily for seats around the long table, froze and stared at me. I got the feeling they didn’t get a lot of dinner guests. Miss Peregrine, already seated at the head of the table, stood up and used the sudden quiet as an opportunity to introduce me.
“For those of you who haven’t already had the pleasure of meeting him,” she announced, “this is Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. He is our honored guest and has come a very long way to be here. I hope you will treat him accordingly.” Then she pointed to each person in the room and recited their names, most of which I immediately forgot, as happens when I’m nervous. The introductions were followed by a barrage of questions, which Miss Peregrine batted away with rapid-fire efficiency.
“Is Jacob going to stay with us?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Where’s Abe?”
“Abe is busy in America.”
“Why does Jacob got Victor’s trousers on?”
“Victor doesn’t need them anymore, and Mr. Portman’s are being washed.”
“What’s Abe doing in America?”
At this question I saw Emma, who had been glowering in a corner, rise from her chair and stalk out of the room. The others, apparently used to her volatile moods, paid no attention.
“Never mind what Abe’s doing,” Miss Peregrine snapped.
“When’s he coming back?”
“Never mind that, too. Now let’s eat!”
Everyone stampeded to their seats. Thinking I’d found an empty chair, I went to sit and felt a fork jab my thigh. “Excuse me!” cried Millard. But Miss Peregrine made him give it up anyway, sending him out to put on clothes.
“How many times must I tell you,” she called after him, “polite persons do not take their supper in the nude!”
Kids with kitchen duty appeared bearing trays of food, all covered with gleaming silver tops so that you couldn’t see what was inside, sparking wild speculation about what might be for dinner.
“Otters Wellington!” one boy cried.
“Salted kitten and shrew’s liver!” another said, to which the younger children responded with gagging sounds. But when the covers were finally lifted, a feast of kingly proportions was revealed: a roasted goose, its flesh a perfect golden brown; a whole salmon and a whole cod, each outfitted with lemons and fresh dill and pats of melting butter; a bowl of steamed mussels; platters of roasted vegetables; loaves of bread still cooling from the oven; and all manner of jellies and sauces I didn’t recognize but that looked delicious. It all glowed invitingly in the flicker of gaslight lamps, a world away from the oily stews of indeterminate origin I’d been choking down at the Priest Hole. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and proceeded to stuff myself silly.
It shouldn’t have surprised me that peculiar children have peculiar eating habits, but between forkfuls of food I found myself sneaking glances around the room. Olive the levitating girl had to be belted into a chair screwed to the floor so that she wouldn’t float up to the ceiling. So the rest of us wouldn’t be plagued by insects, Hugh, the boy who had bees living in his stomach, ate under a large mosquito net at a table for one in the corner. Claire, a doll-like girl with immaculate golden curls, sat next to Miss Peregrine but ate not a morsel.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked her.
“Claire don’t eat with the rest of us,” Hugh volunteered, a bee escaping from his mouth. “She’s embarrassed.”
“I am not!” she said, glaring at him.
“Yeah? Then eat something!”
“No one here is embarrassed of their gift,” Miss Peregrine said. “Miss Densmore simply prefers to dine alone. Isn’t that right, Miss Densmore?”
The girl stared at the empty place before her, clearly wishing that all the attention would vanish.
“Claire has a backmouth,” explained Millard, who sat beside me now in a smoking jacket (and nothing else).
“A what?”
“Go on, show him!” someone said. Soon everyone at the table was pressuring Claire to eat something. And finally, just to shut them up, she did.
A leg of goose was set before her. She turned around in her chair, and gripping its arms she bent over backward, dipping the back of her head to the plate. I heard a distinct smacking sound, and when she lifted her head again a giant bite had disappeared from the goose leg. Beneath her golden hair was a set of sharp-toothed jaws. Suddenly, I understood the strange picture of Claire that I’d seen in Miss Peregrine’s album, to which the photographer had devoted two panels: one for her daintily pretty face and another for the curls that so thoroughly masked the back of her head.
Claire turned forward and crossed her arms, annoyed that she’d let herself be talked into such a humiliating demonstration. She sat in silence while the others peppered me with questions. After Miss Peregrine had dismissed a few more about my grandfather, the children turned to other subjects. They seemed especially interested in what life in the twenty-first century was like.
“What sort of flying motorcars do you have?” asked a pubescent boy named Horace, who wore a dark suit that made him look like an apprentice undertaker.
“None,” I said. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Have they built cities on the moon?” another boy asked hopefully.
“We left some garbage and a flag there in the sixties, but that’s about it.”
“Does Britain still rule the world?”
“Uh … not exactly.”
They seemed disappointed. Sensing an opportunity, Miss Peregrine said, “You see, children? The future isn’t so grand after all. Nothing wrong with the good old here and now!” I got the feeling this was something she often tried to impress upon them, with little success. But it got me wondering: Just how long had they been here, in the “good old here and now?”
“Do you mind if I ask how old you all are?” I said.
“I’m eighty-three,” said Horace.
Olive raised her hand excitedly. “I’ll be seventy-five and a half next week!” I wondered how they kept track of the months and years if the days never changed.
“I’m either one hundred seventeen or one hundred eighteen,” said a heavy-lidded boy named Enoch. He looked no more than thirteen. “I lived in another loop before this one,” he explained.
“I’m nearly eighty-seven,” said Millard with his mouth full of goose drippings, and as he spoke a half-chewed mass quavered in his invisible jaw for all to see. There were groans as people covered their eyes and looked away.
Then it was my turn. I was sixteen, I told them. I saw a few kids’ eyes widen. Olive laughed in surprise. It was strange to them that I should be so young, but what was strange to me was how young they seemed. I knew plenty of eighty-year-olds in Florida, and these kids acted nothing like them. It was as if the constance of their lives here, the unvarying days—this perpetual deathless summer—had arrested their emotions as well as their bodies, sealing them in their youth like Peter Pan and his Lost Boys.
A sudden boom sounded from outside, the second one this evening, but louder and closer than the first, rattling silverware and plates.
“Hurry up and finish, everyone!” Miss Peregrine sang out, and no sooner had she said it than another concussion jolted the house, throwing a framed picture off the wall behind me.
“What is that?” I said.
“It’s those damned Jerries again!” growled Olive, thumping her little fist on the table, clearly in imitation of some ill-tempered adult. Then I heard what sounded like a buzzer going off somewhere far away, and suddenly it occurred to me what was happening. This was the night of September third, 1940, and in a little while a bomb was going to fall from the sky and blow a giant hole in the house. The buzzer was an air-raid siren, sounding from the ridge.
“We have to get out of here,” I said, panic rising in my throat. “We have to go before the bomb hits!”
“He doesn’t know!” giggled Olive. “He thinks we’re going to die!”
“It’s only the changeover,” said Millard with a shrug of his smoking jacket. “No reason to get your knickers in a twist.”
“This happens every night?”
Miss Peregrine nodded. “Every single evening,” she said. Somehow, though, I was not reassured.
“May we go outside and show Jacob?” said Hugh.
“Yes, may we?” Claire begged, suddenly enthused after twenty minutes of sulking. “The changeover is ever so beautiful!”
Miss Peregrine demurred, pointing out that they hadn’t yet finished their dinners, but the children pleaded with her until she relented. “All right, so long as you all wear your masks,” she said.
The children burst out of their seats and ran from the room, leaving poor Olive behind until someone took pity and came to unbelt her from her chair. I ran after them through the house into the wood-paneled foyer, where they each grabbed something from a cabinet before bounding out the door. Miss Peregrine gave me one, too, and I stood turning it over in my hands. It looked like a sagging face of black rubber, with wide glass portholes like eyes that were frozen in shock, and a droopy snout that ended in a perforated canister.
“Go ahead,” said Miss Peregrine. “Put it on.” Then I realized what it was: a gas mask.
I strapped it over my face and followed her out onto the lawn, where the children stood scattered like chess pieces on an unmarked board, anonymous behind their upturned masks, watching billows of black smoke roll across the sky. Treetops burned in the hazy distance. The drone of unseen airplanes seemed to come from everywhere.
Now and then came a muffled blast I could feel in my chest like the thump of a second heart, followed by waves of broiling heat, like someone opening and closing an oven right in front of me. I ducked at each concussion, but the kids never so much as flinched. Instead they sang, their lyrics timed perfectly to the rhythm of the bombs.
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, RUN!
Bang, bang, BANG goes the farmer’s gun
He’ll get by without his rabbit pie, so
Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, RUN!
Bright tracer bullets scored the heavens just as the song ended. The kids applauded like onlookers at a fireworks display, violent slashes of color reflected in their masks. This nightly assault had become such a regular part of their lives that they’d ceased to think of it as something terrifying—in fact, the photograph I’d seen of it in Miss Peregrine’s album had been labeled Our beautiful display. And in its own morbid way, I suppose it was.
It began to drizzle, as if all that flying metal had riven holes in the clouds. The concussions came less frequently. The attack seemed to be ending.
The children started to leave. I thought we were going back inside, but they passed the front door and headed for another part of the yard.
“Where are we going?” I asked two masked kids.
They said nothing, but seeming to sense my anxiety, they took me gently by the hands and led me along with the others. We rounded the house to the back corner, where everyone was gathering around a giant topiary. This one wasn’t a mythical creature, though, but a man reposing in the grass, one arm supporting him, the other pointing to the sky. It took a moment before I realized that it was a leafy replica of Michelangelo’s fresco of Adam from the Sistine Chapel. Considering that it was made from bushes, it was really impressive. You could almost make out the placid expression on Adam’s face, which had two blooming gardenias for eyes.
I saw the wild-haired girl standing nearby. She wore a flower-print dress that had been patched so many times it almost looked like a quilt. I went over to her and, pointing to Adam, said, “Did you make this?”