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 striped.
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!”
“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?”