I wanted to read them all but was afraid someone would walk in on me, so I thumbed through them quickly to get an overview. Many were dated from the early 1940s, during Grandpa Portman’s time in the army. A random sampling revealed them to be long and sappy, full of declarations of his love and awkward descriptions of Emma’s beauty in my grandfather’s then-broken English (“You are pretty like flower, have good smell also, may I pick?”). In one he’d enclosed a picture of himself posing atop a bomb with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Over time, his letters grew shorter and less frequent. By the 1950s there was maybe one a year. The last was dated April 1963; inside the envelope was no letter, just a few pictures. Two were of Emma, snapshots she’d sent him that he’d sent back. The first was from early on—a jokey pose to answer his—of her peeling potatoes and pretending to smoke one of Miss Peregrine’s pipes. The next one was sadder, and I imagined she’d sent it after my grandfather had failed to write for a while. The last photo—the last thing he’d ever sent her, in fact—showed my grandfather at middle age, holding a little girl.
I had to stare at the last picture for a minute before I realized who the little girl was. It was my aunt Susie, maybe four years old then. After that, there were no more letters. I wondered how much longer Emma had continued writing to my grandfather without receiving a reply, and what he’d done with her letters. Thrown them out? Stashed them somewhere? Surely, it had to be one of those letters that my father and aunt had found as kids, that made them think their father was a liar and a cheat. How wrong they were.
I heard a throat clear behind me, and turned to see Emma glaring from the doorway. I scrambled to gather the letters, my face flushing, but it was too late. I was caught.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be in here.”
“I’m bloody well aware of that,” she said, “but by all means, don’t let me interrupt your reading.” She stamped over to her chest of drawers, yanked one out, and threw it clattering to the floor. “While you’re at it, why don’t you have a look through my knickers, too!”
“I’m really, really sorry,” I repeated. “I never do things like this.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t wonder. Too busy peeping in ladies’ windows, I suppose!” She towered over me, shaking with anger, while I struggled to fit all the letters back into the box.
“There’s a system, you know. Just give them here, you’re mucking everything up!” She sat down and pushed me aside, emptying the box onto the floor and sorting the letters into piles with the speed of a postal worker. Thinking it best to shut my mouth, I watched meekly while she worked.
When she’d calmed a little, she said, “So you want to know about Abe and me, is that it? Because you could’ve just asked.”
“I didn’t want to pry.”
“Rather a moot point now, wouldn’t you say?”
“So? What is it you want to know?”
I thought about it. I wasn’t really sure where to start. “Just … what happened?”
“All right then, we’ll skip all the nice bits and go right to the end. It’s simple, really. He left. He said he loved me and promised to come back one day. But he never did.”
“But he had to go, didn’t he? To fight?”
“Had to? I don’t know. He said he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he sat out the war while his people were being hunted and killed. Said it was his duty. I suppose duty meant more to him than I did. Anyhow, I waited. I waited and worried through that whole bloody war, thinking every letter that came was a death notice. Then, when the war was finally over, he said he couldn’t possibly come back. Said he’d go stark raving. Said he’d learned how to defend himself in the army and he damn well didn’t need a nanny like the Bird to look after him anymore. He was going to America to make a home for us, and then he’d send for me. So I waited more. I waited so long that if I’d actually gone to be with him I would’ve been forty years old. By then he’d taken up with some commoner. And that, as they say, was that.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s an old story. I don’t drag it out much anymore.”
“You blame him for being stuck here,” I said.
She gave me a sharp look. “Who says I’m stuck?” Then she sighed. “No, I don’t blame him. Just miss him is all.”
She finished sorting the letters. “There you have it,” she said, clapping the lid on them. “The entire history of my love life in a dusty box in the closet.” She drew a deep breath and then shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. For a moment I could almost see the old woman hiding behind her smooth features. My grandfather had trampled her poor, pining heart, and the wound was still raw, even these many years later.
I thought of putting my arm around her, but something stopped me. Here was this beautiful, funny, fascinating girl who, miracle of miracles, really seemed to like me. But now I understood that it wasn’t me she liked. She was heartbroken for someone else, and I was merely a stand-in for my grandfather. That’s enough to give anyone pause, I don’t care how horny you are. I know guys who are grossed-out by the idea of dating a friend’s ex. By that standard, dating your grandfather’s ex would practically be incest.
The next thing I knew, Emma’s hand was on my arm. Then her head was on my shoulder, and I could feel her chin tracking slowly toward my face. This was kiss-me body language if there ever was such a thing. In a minute our faces would be level and I’d have to choose between locking lips or seriously offending her by pulling away, and I’d already offended her once. It’s not that I didn’t want to—more than anything I did—but the idea of kissing her two feet from a box of obsessively well-preserved love letters from my grandfather made me feel weird and nervous.
Then her cheek was against mine, and I knew it was now or never, so I said the first mood-killing thing that popped into my head.
“Is there something going on between you and Enoch?”
She pulled away instantly, looking at me like I’d suggested we dine on puppies. “What?! No! Where on earth did you get a twisted idea like that?”
“From him. He sounds kind of bitter when he talks about you, and I get the distinct impression he doesn’t want me around, like I’m horning in on his game or something.”
Her eyes kept getting wider. “First of all, he doesn’t have any ‘game’ to ‘horn in’ on, I can assure you of that. He’s a jealous fool and a liar.”
“Is he which?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Why? What kind of nonsense has he been spouting?”
“Emma, what happened to Victor?”
She looked shocked. Then, shaking her head, she muttered, “Damn that selfish boy.”
“There’s something no one here is telling me, and I want to know what it is.”
“I can’t,” she said.
“That’s all I’ve been hearing! I can’t talk about the future. You can’t talk about the past. Miss Peregrine has us all tied up in knots. My grandfather’s last wish was for me to come here and find out the truth. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
She took my hand and brought it into her lap and looked down at it. She seemed to be searching for the right words. “You’re right,” she said finally. “There is something.”
“Not here,” she whispered. “Tonight.”
We arranged to meet late that night, when my dad and Miss Peregrine would be asleep. Emma insisted it was the only way, because the walls had ears and it was impossible to slip off together during the day without arousing suspicion. To complete the illusion that we had nothing to hide, we spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the yard in full view of everyone, and when the sun began to set I walked back to the bog alone.
* * *
It was another rainy evening in the twenty-first century, and by the time I reached the pub I was thankful just to be somewhere dry. I found my dad alone, nursing a beer at a table, so I pulled up a chair and began fabricating stories about my day while toweling off my face with napkins. (Something I was beginning to discover about lying: The more I did it, the easier it got.)
He was hardly even listening. “Huh,” he’d say, “that’s interesting,” and then his gaze would drift off and he’d take another swig of beer.
“What’s up with you?” I said. “Are you still pissed at me?”
“No, no, nothing like that.” He was about to explain but waved it away. “Ahh, it’s stupid.”
“Dad. Come on.”
“It’s just … this guy who showed up a couple days ago. Another birder.”
“Someone you know?”
He shook his head. “Never seen him before. At first I thought he was just some part-time enthusiast yahoo, but he keeps coming back to the same sites, the same nesting grounds, taking notes. He definitely knows what he’s doing. Then today I saw him with a banding cage and a pair of Predators, so I know he’s a pro.”
“Binoculars. Real serious glass.” He’d wadded up his paper placemat and resmoothed it three times now, a nervous habit. “It’s just that I thought I had the scoop on this bird population, you know? I really wanted this book to be something special.”
“And then this asshole comes along.”
“I mean, this no-good sonofabitch.”
He laughed. “Thank you, son, that’ll do.”
“It will be special,” I said reassuringly.
He shrugged. “I dunno. Hope so.” But he didn’t sound too certain.
I knew exactly what was about to happen. It was part of this pathetic cycle my dad was caught in. He’d get really passionate about some project, talk about it nonstop for months. Then, inevitably, some tiny problem would crop up and throw sand in the gears, and instead of dealing with it he’d let it completely overwhelm him. The next thing you knew, the project would be off and he’d be on to the next one, and the cycle would start again. He got discouraged too easily. It was the reason why he had a dozen unfinished manuscripts locked in his desk, and why the bird store he tried to open with Aunt Susie never got off the ground, and why he had a bachelor’s degree in Asian languages but had never been to Asia. He was forty-six years old and still trying to find himself, still trying to prove he didn’t need my mother’s money.
What he really needed was a pep talk that I didn’t feel at all qualified to give, so instead I tried to subtly change the subject. “Where’s this interloper staying?” I asked. “I thought we had the only rooms in town.”
“I assume he’s camping,” my dad replied.
“In this weather?”
“It’s kind of a hardcore ornithology-geek thing. Roughing it gets you closer to your subjects, both physically and psychologically. Achievement through adversity and all that.”
I laughed. “Then why aren’t you out there?” I said, then immediately wished I hadn’t.
“Same reason my book probably won’t happen. There’s always someone more dedicated than I am.”
I shifted awkwardly in my chair. “I didn’t mean it like that. What I meant was—”
“Ssh!” My dad stiffened, glancing furtively toward the door. “Look quick but don’t make it obvious. He just walked in.”
I shielded my face with the menu and peeked over the top. A scruffy-looking bearded guy stood in the doorway, stamping water from his boots. He wore a rain hat and dark glasses and what appeared to be several jackets layered on top of one another, which made him look both fat and vaguely transient.
“I love the homeless Santa Claus thing he’s got going,” I whispered. “Not an easy look to pull off. Very next-season.”
He ignored me. The man bellied up to the bar, and conversations around him quieted a notch or two. Kev asked what he’d like and the man said something and Kev disappeared into the kitchen. He stared straight ahead as he waited, and a minute later Kev came back and handed the guy a doggie bag. He took it, dropped some bills on the bar, and went to the door. Before leaving, he turned to slowly scan the room. Then, after a long moment, he left.
“What’d he order?” my dad shouted when the door had swung shut.
“Coupla steaks,” Kev replied. “Said he didn’t care how they were cooked, so he got ’em ten-seconds-a-side rare. No complaints.”
People began to mutter and speculate, the volume of their conversations rising again.
“Raw steak,” I said to my father. “You gotta admit, even for an ornithologist that’s a little weird.”
“Maybe he’s a raw foodist,” Dad replied.
“Yeah, right. Or maybe he got tired of feasting on the blood of lambs.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “The man obviously has a camp stove. He probably just prefers to cook out in the open.”
“In the rain? And why are you defending him, anyway? I thought he was your archnemesis.”
“I don’t expect you to understand,” he said, “but it would be nice if you didn’t make fun of me.” And he stood up to go to the bar.
* * *
A few hours later my dad stumbled upstairs, reeking of alcohol, and flopped into his bed. He was asleep instantly, ripping out monster snores. I grabbed a coat and set out to meet Emma, no sneaking necessary.