Why would you disguise your identity in a letter? Because you have something to hide. Because you are the other woman.
What if the only thing I had discovered on this trip was that my grandfather was an adulterous liar? In his last breaths, was he trying to tell me about the death of his adopted family—or admit to some tawdry, decades-long affair? Maybe it was both, and the truth was that by the time he was a young man he’d had his family torn apart so many times he no longer knew how to have one, or to be faithful to one.
It was all just guesswork, though. I didn’t know, and there was no one to ask. Anyone who might have had the answer was long dead. In less than twenty-four hours, the whole trip had become pointless.
I fell into an uneasy sleep. At dawn, I woke to the sound of something in my room. Rolling over to see what it was, I bolted upright in bed. A large bird was perched on my dresser, staring me down. It had a sleek head feathered in gray and talons that clacked on the wooden dresser as it sidled back and forth along the edge, as if to get a better look at me. I stared back rigidly, wondering if this could be a dream.
I called out for my dad, and at the sound of my voice the bird launched itself off the dresser. I threw my arm across my face and rolled away, and when I peeked again it was gone, flown out the open window.
My dad stumbled in, bleary-eyed. “What’s going on?”
I showed him the talon marks on the dresser and a feather that had landed on the floor. “God, that’s weird,” he said, turning it over in his hands. “Peregrines almost never come this close to humans.”
I thought maybe I’d heard him wrong. “Did you say peregrines?”
He held up the feather. “A peregrine falcon,” he said. “They’re amazing creatures—the fastest birds on earth. They’re like shape-shifters, the way they streamline their bodies in the air.” The name was just a weird coincidence, but it left me with an uncanny feeling I couldn’t shake.
Over breakfast, I began to wonder if I’d given up too easily. Though it was true there was no one left alive whom I could talk to about my grandfather, there was still the house, a lot of it unexplored. If it had ever held answers about my grandfather—in the form of letters, maybe, or a photo album or a diary—they’d probably burned up or rotted away decades ago. But if I left the island without making sure, I knew I’d regret it.
And that is how someone who is unusually susceptible to nightmares, night terrors, the Creeps, the Willies, and Seeing Things That Aren’t Really There talks himself into making one last trip to the abandoned, almost-certainly-haunted house where a dozen or more children met their untimely end.
It was an almost-too-perfect morning. Leaving the pub felt like stepping into one of those heavily retouched photos that come loaded as wallpaper on new computers: streets of artfully decrepit cottages stretched into the distance, giving way to green fields sewn together by meandering rock walls, the whole scene topped by scudding white clouds. But beyond all that, above the houses and fields and sheep doddering around like little puffs of cotton candy, I could see tongues of dense fog licking over the ridge in the distance, where this world ended and the next one began, cold, damp, and sunless.
I walked over the ridge and straight into a rain shower. True to form, I had forgotten my rubber boots, and the path was a rapidly deepening ribbon of mud. But getting a little wet seemed vastly preferable to climbing that hill twice in one morning, so I bent my head against the spitting rain and trudged onward. Soon I passed the shack, dim outlines of sheep huddled inside against the chill, and then the mist-shrouded bog, silent and ghostly. I thought about the twenty-seven-hundred-year-old resident of Cairnholm’s museum and wondered how many more like him these fields held, undiscovered, arrested in death; how many more had given up their lives here, looking for heaven.
By the time I reached the children’s home, what had begun as a drizzle was a full-on downpour. There was no time to dally in the house’s feral yard and reflect upon its malevolent shape—the way the doorless doorway seemed to swallow me as I dove through it, the way the hall’s rain-bloated floorboards gave a little beneath my shoes. I stood wringing water from my shirt and shaking out my hair, and when I was as dry as I was going to get—which was not very—I began to search. For what, I wasn’t sure. A box of letters? My grandfather’s name scribbled on a wall? It all seemed so unlikely.
I roved around peeling up mats of old newspaper and looking under chairs and tables. I imagined uncovering some horrible scene—a tangle of skeletons dressed in fire-blackened rags—but all I found were rooms that had become more outside than inside, character stripped away by moisture and wind and layers of dirt. The ground floor was hopeless. I went back to the staircase, knowing this time I would have to climb it. The only question was, up or down? One strike against going upstairs was its limited options for quick escape (from squatters or ghouls or whatever else my anxious mind could invent) other than hurling myself from an upper-story window. Downstairs had the same problem, and with the added detractor of being dark, and me without a flashlight. So upstairs it was.
The steps protested my weight with a symphony of shudders and creaks, but they held, and what I discovered upstairs—compared to the bombed-out ground floor, at least—was like a time capsule. Arranged along a hallway striped with peeling wallpaper, the rooms were in surprisingly good shape. Though one or two had been invaded by mold where a broken window had let in the rain, the rest were packed with things that seemed only a layer or two of dust away from new: a mildewed shirt tossed casually over the back of a chair, loose change skimming a nightstand. It was easy to believe that everything was just as the children had left it, as if time had stopped the night they died.
I went from room to room, examining their contents like an archaeologist. There were wooden toys moldering in a box; crayons on a windowsill, their colors dulled by the light of ten thousand afternoons; a dollhouse with dolls inside, lifers in an ornate prison. In a modest library, the creep of moisture had bowed the shelves into crooked smiles. I ran my finger along the balding spines, as if considering pulling one out to read. There were classics like Peter Pan and The Secret Garden, histories written by authors forgotten by history, textbooks of Latin and Greek. In the corner were corralled a few old desks. This had been their classroom, I realized, and Miss Peregrine, their teacher.
I tried to open a pair of heavy doors, twisting the handle, but they were swelled shut—so I took a running start and rammed them with my shoulder. They flew open with a rasping shriek and I fell face-first into the next room. As I picked myself up and looked around, I realized that it could only have belonged to Miss Peregrine. It was like a room in Sleeping Beauty’s castle, with cobwebbed candles mounted in wall sconces, a mirrored vanity table topped with crystal bottles, and a giant oak bed. I pictured the last time she’d been here, scrambling out from under the sheets in the middle of the night to the whine of an air-raid siren, rounding up the children, all groggy and grasping for coats on their way downstairs.
Were you scared? I wondered. Did you hear the planes coming?
I began to feel unusual. I imagined I was being watched; that the children were still here, preserved like the bog boy, inside the walls. I could feel them peering at me through cracks and knotholes.
I drifted into the next room. Weak light shone through a window. Petals of powder-blue wallpaper drooped toward a couple of small beds, still clad in dusty sheets. I knew, somehow, that this had been my grandfather’s room.
Why did you send me here? What was it you needed me to see?
Then I noticed something beneath one of the beds and knelt down to look. It was an old suitcase.
Was this yours? Is it what you carried onto the train the last time you saw your mother and father, as your first life was slipping away?
I pulled it out and fumbled with its tattered leather straps. It opened easily—but except for a family of dead beetles, it was empty.
I felt empty, too, and strangely heavy, like the planet was spinning too fast, heating up gravity, pulling me toward the floor. Suddenly exhausted, I sat on the bed—his bed, maybe—and for reasons I can’t quite explain, I stretched out on those filthy sheets and stared at the ceiling.
What did you think about, lying here at night? Did you have nightmares, too?
I began to cry.
When your parents died, did you know it? Could you feel them go?
I cried harder. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t stop myself.
I couldn’t stop myself, so I thought about all the bad things and I fed it and fed it until I was crying so hard I had to gasp for breath between sobs. I thought about how my great-grandparents had starved to death. I thought about their wasted bodies being fed to incinerators because people they didn’t know hated them. I thought about how the children who lived in this house had been burned up and blown apart because a pilot who didn’t care pushed a button. I thought about how my grandfather’s family had been taken from him, and how because of that my dad grew up feeling like he didn’t have a dad, and now I had acute stress and nightmares and was sitting alone in a falling-down house and crying hot, stupid tears all over my shirt. All because of a seventy-year-old hurt that had somehow been passed down to me like some poisonous heirloom, and monsters I couldn’t fight because they were all dead, beyond killing or punishing or any kind of reckoning. At least my grandfather had been able to join the army and go fight them. What could I do?
When it was over, my head was pounding. I closed my eyes and pushed my knuckles in to stop them from hurting, if only for a moment, and when I finally released the pressure and opened them again, a miraculous change had come over the room: There was a single ray of sun shining through the window. I got up, went to the cracked glass, and saw that it was both raining and shining outside—a bit of meteorological weirdness whose name no one can seem to agree on. My mom, I kid you not, refers to it as “orphans’ tears.” Then I remembered what Ricky says about it—“the Devil’s beatin’ his wife!”—and I laughed and felt a little better.
Then, in the patch of quickly fading sun that fell across the room, I noticed something I hadn’t before. It was a trunk—or the edge of one, at least—poking out from under the second bed. I went over and peeled back the bed sheet that hid most of it from view.
It was a big old steamer trunk latched with a giant rusting padlock. It couldn’t possibly be empty, I thought. You don’t lock an empty trunk. Open me! it fairly seemed to cry out. I am full of secrets!
I grabbed it by the sides and pulled. It didn’t move. I pulled again, harder, but it wouldn’t give an inch. I wasn’t sure if it was just that heavy, or if generations of accumulated moisture and dust had somehow fused it to the floor. I stood up and kicked it a few times, which seemed to jar things loose, and then I managed to move it by pulling on one side at a time, shimmying it forward the way you might move a stove or a fridge, until it had come out all the way from under the bed, leaving a trail of parenthetical scars in the floor. I yanked on the padlock, but despite a thick encrustation of rust it seemed rock solid. I briefly considered searching for a key—it had to be here somewhere—but I could’ve wasted hours looking, and the lock was so decayed that I wondered if the key would even work anymore. My only option was to break it.
Looking around for something that might do the job, I found a busted chair in one of the other rooms. I pried off a leg and went to town on the lock, raising the leg over my head like an executioner and bringing it down as hard as I could, over and over, until the leg itself finally broke and I was left holding a splintered stump. I scanned the room for something stronger and quickly spotted a loose railing on the bed frame. After a few stomping kicks, it clattered to the floor. I wedged one end through the lock and pulled the other end backward. Nothing happened.
I hung on it with all my weight, lifting my feet off the floor like I was doing a pull-up with the rail. The trunk creaked a little, but that was it.
I started to get mad. I kicked the trunk and pulled on that rail with every bit of my strength, the veins bulging out of my neck, yelling, Open god damn you, open you stupid trunk! Finally my frustration and anger had an object: If I couldn’t make my dead grandfather give up his secrets, I would damn well pry the secrets out of this old trunk. And then the rail slipped and I crashed to the floor and got the wind knocked out of me.
I lay there and stared at the ceiling, catching my breath. The orphans’ tears had ended and now it was just plain old raining outside, harder than ever. I thought about going back to town for a sledgehammer or a hacksaw—but that would only raise questions I didn’t feel like answering.
Then I had a brilliant idea. If I could find a way to break the trunk, I wouldn’t have to worry about the lock at all. And what force would be stronger than me and my admittedly underdeveloped upper-body muscles wailing on the trunk with random tools? Gravity. I was, after all, on the second floor of the house, and while I didn’t think there was any way I could lift the trunk high enough to get it through a window, the rail along the top of the staircase landing had long ago collapsed. All I had to do was drag the trunk down the hall and push it over. Whether its contents would survive the impact was another issue—but at least I’d find out what was inside.
I hunkered down behind the trunk and began pushing it toward the hall. After a few inches its metal feet dug into the soft floor and it ground stubbornly to a halt. Undeterred, I moved around to the other side, gripped the padlock with both hands and pulled backward. To my great surprise it moved two or three feet in one go. It wasn’t a particularly dignified way of working—this squatting, butt-scooting motion I had to repeat over and over, each slide of the trunk accompanied by an ear-splitting metal-on-wood shriek—but before long I’d gotten it out of the room and was dragging it, foot by foot, doorway by doorway, toward the landing. I lost myself in the echoing rhythm of it, working up a manly lather of sweat in the process.