We tied the canoe and ran to meet them. Hugh was out of breath, bees darting around him in a state of agitation. “Something’s happened! You’ve got to come back with us!”
There was no time to argue. Emma pulled her clothes over her swimsuit and I tripped into my pants, all gritty with sand. Hugh regarded me uncertainly. “Not him, though,” he said. “This is serious.”
“No, Hugh,” Emma said. “The Bird was right. He’s one of us.”
He gaped at her, then at me. “You told him?!”
“I had to. He’d practically worked it out for himself, anyway.”
Hugh seemed taken aback for a moment but then turned and gave me a resolute handshake. “Then welcome to the family.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just said, “Thanks.”
On the way to the house, we gleaned sketchy bits of information from Hugh about what had happened, but mostly we just ran. When we stopped in the woods to catch our breath, he said, “It’s one of the Bird’s ymbryne friends. She winged in an hour ago in a terrible state, yelling blue murder and rousing everyone from their beds. Before we could understand what she was getting at she fainted dead off.” He wrung his hands, looking miserable. “Oh, I just know something wicked’s happened.”
“I hope you’re wrong,” said Emma, and we ran on.
* * *
In the hall just outside the sitting room’s closed door, children in rumpled nightclothes huddled around a kerosene lantern, trading rumors about what might have happened.
“Perhaps they forgot to reset their loop,” said Claire.
“Bet you it was hollows,” Enoch said. “Bet they ate the lot of ’em too, right down to their boots!”
Claire and Olive wailed and clapped their little hands over their faces. Horace knelt beside them and said in a comforting voice, “There, there. Don’t let Enoch fill your heads with rubbish. Everyone knows hollows like young ones best. That’s why they let Miss Peregrine’s friend go—she tastes like old coffee grounds!”
Olive peeked out from between her fingers. “What do young ones taste like?”
“Lingonberries,” he said matter-of-factly. The girls wailed again.
“Leave them alone!” Hugh shouted, and a squadron of bees sent Horace yelping down the hall.
“What’s going on out there?” Miss Peregrine called from inside the sitting room. “Is that Mr. Apiston I hear? Where are Miss Bloom and Mr. Portman?”
Emma cringed and shot Hugh a nervous look. “She knows?”
“When she found out you were gone, she just about went off her chump. Thought you’d been abducted by wights or some barminess. Sorry, Em. I had to tell her.”
Emma shook her head, but all we could do was go in and face the music. Fiona gave us a little salute—as if to wish us luck—and we opened the doors.
Inside the sitting room, the only light was a hearth fire that threw our quivering shadows against the wall. Bronwyn hovered anxiously around an old woman who was teetering half-conscious in a chair, mummied up in a blanket. Miss Peregrine sat on an ottoman, feeding the woman spoonfuls of dark liquid.
When Emma saw her face, she froze. “Oh my God,” she whispered. “It’s Miss Avocet.”
Only then did I recognize her, though just barely, from the photograph Miss Peregrine had shown me of herself as a young girl. Miss Avocet had seemed so indomitable then, but now she looked frail and weak.
As we stood watching, Miss Peregrine brought a silver flask to Miss Avocet’s lips and tipped it, and for a moment the elder ymbryne seemed to revive, sitting forward with brightening eyes. But then her expression dulled again and she sank back into the chair.
“Miss Bruntley,” said Miss Peregrine to Bronwyn, “go and make up the fainting couch for Miss Avocet and then fetch a bottle of coca wine and another flask of brandy.”
Bronwyn trooped out, nodding solemnly as they passed. Next Miss Peregrine turned to us and said in a low voice, “I am tremendously disappointed in you, Miss Bloom. Tremendously. And of all the nights to sneak away.”
“I’m sorry, Miss. But how was I to know something bad would happen?”
“I should punish you. However, given the circumstances, it hardly seems worth the effort.” She raised a hand and smoothed her mentor’s white hair. “Miss Avocet would never have left her wards to come here unless something dire had taken place.”
The roaring fire made beads of sweat break out on my forehead, but in her chair Miss Avocet lay shivering. Would she die? Was the tragic scene that had played out between my grandfather and me about to play out again, this time between Miss Peregrine and her teacher? I pictured it: me holding my grandfather’s body, terrified and confused, never suspecting the truth about him or myself. What was happening now, I decided, was nothing like what had happened to me. Miss Peregrine had always known who she was.
It hardly seemed like the time to bring it up, but I was angry and couldn’t help myself. “Miss Peregrine?” I began, and she looked up. “When were you going to tell me?”
She was about to ask what, but then her eyes went to Emma, and she seemed to read the answer on her face. For a moment she looked mad, but then she saw my anger, and her own faded. “Soon, lad. Please understand. To have laid the entire truth upon you at our first meeting would have been an awful shock. Your behavior was unpredictable. You might’ve fled, never to return. I could not take that risk.”
“So instead you tried to seduce me with food and fun and girls while keeping all the bad things a secret?”
Emma gasped. “Seduce? Oh, please, don’t think that of me, Jacob. I couldn’t bear it.”
“I fear you’ve badly misjudged us,” said Miss Peregrine. “As for seducing you, what you’ve seen is how we live. There has been no deception, only the withholding of a few facts.”
“Well here’s a fact for you,” I said. “One of those creatures killed my grandfather.”
Miss Peregrine stared at the fire for a moment. “I am very sorry to hear that.”
“I saw one with my own eyes. When I told people about it, they tried to convince me I was crazy. But I wasn’t, and neither was my grandfather. His whole life he’d been telling me the truth, and I didn’t believe him.” Shame flooded over me. “If I had, maybe he’d still be alive.”
Miss Peregrine saw that I was wobbling and offered me the chair across from Miss Avocet.
I sate, and Emma knelt down beside me. “Abe must’ve known you were peculiar,” she said. “And he must’ve had a good reason for not telling you.”
“He did indeed know,” replied Miss Peregrine. “He said as much in a letter.”
“I don’t understand, then. If it was all true—all his stories—and if he knew I was like him, why did he keep it a secret until the last minute of his life?”
Miss Peregrine spoon-fed more brandy to Miss Avocet, who groaned and sat up a little before settling back into the chair. “I can only imagine that he wanted to protect you,” she said. “Ours can be a life of trials and deprivations. Abe’s life was doubly so because he was born a Jew in the worst of times. He faced a double genocide, of Jews by the Nazis and of peculiars by the hollowgast. He was tormented by the idea that he was hiding here while his people, both Jews and peculiars, were being slaughtered.”
“He used to say he’d gone to war to fight monsters,” I said.
“He did,” said Emma.
“The war ended the Nazis’ rule, but the hollowgast emerged stronger than ever,” Miss Peregrine continued. “So, like many peculiars, we remained in hiding. But your grandfather returned a changed man. He’d become a warrior, and he was determined to build a life for himself outside the loop. He refused to hide.”
“I begged him not to go to America,” Emma said. “We all did.”
“Why did he choose America?” I asked.
“It had few hollowgast at that time,” Miss Peregrine replied. “After the war there was a minor exodus of peculiars to America. For a while many were able to pass as common, as your grandfather did. It was his fondest wish to be common, to live a common life. He often mentioned it in his letters. I’m sure that’s why he kept the truth from you for so long. He wanted for you what he could never have for himself.”
“To be ordinary,” I said.
Miss Peregrine nodded. “But he could never escape his peculiarity. His unique skill, coupled with the prowess he’d honed during the war as a hunter of hollows, made him too valuable. He was often pressed into service, asked to help eradicate troublesome pockets of hollows. His nature was such that he rarely refused.”
I thought about all the long hunting trips Grandpa Portman used to go on. My family had a picture of him taken during one of these, though I don’t know who took it or when since he almost always went alone. But when I was a kid I thought it was the funniest thing because, in the picture, he’s wearing a suit. Who brings a suit on a hunting trip?
Now I knew: Someone who’s hunting more than just animals.
I was moved by this new idea of my grandfather, not as a paranoiac gun nut or a secretive philanderer or a man who wasn’t there for his family, but as a wandering knight who risked his life for others, living out of cars and cheap motels, stalking lethal shadows, coming home shy a few bullets and marked with bruises he could never quite explain and nightmares he couldn’t talk about. For his many sacrifices, he received only scorn and suspicion from those he loved. I guess that’s why he wrote so many letters to Emma and Miss Peregrine. They understood.
Bronwyn returned with a decanter of coca-wine and another flask of brandy. Miss Peregrine sent her away and set about mixing them together in a teacup. Then she began to pat Miss Avocet gently on her blue-veined cheek.
“Esmerelda,” she said, “Esmerelda, you must rouse yourself and drink this tonic I’ve prepared.”
Miss Avocet moaned, and Miss Peregrine raised the teacup to her lips. The old woman took a few sips and, though she sputtered and coughed, most of the purplish liquid disappeared down her throat. For a moment she stared as if about to sink back into her stupor, but then she sat forward, face brightening.
“Oh, my,” she said, her voice a dry rasp. “Have I fallen asleep? How indecorous of me.” She looked at us in mild surprise, as if we’d appeared out of nowhere. “Alma? Is that you?”
Miss Peregrine kneaded the old woman’s bony hands. “Esmerelda, you’ve come a long way to see us in the dead of night. I’m afraid you’ve got us all terribly worked up.”
“Have I?” Miss Avocet squinted and furrowed her brow, and her eyes seemed to fix on the opposite wall, alive with flickering shadows. Then a haunted expression stole across her face. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve come to warn you, Alma. You must be on your guard. You mustn’t allow yourselves to be taken by surprise, as I was.”
Miss Peregrine stopped kneading. “By what?”
“They could only have been wights. A pair of them came in the night, disguised as council members. There are no male council members, of course, but it fooled my sleep-dazed wards just long enough for the wights to bind them and drag them away.”
Miss Peregrine gasped. “Oh, Esmerelda …”
“Miss Bunting and I were awoken by their anguished cries,” she explained, “but we found ourselves barricaded inside the house. It took some time to force the doors, but when we did and followed the wights’ stink out of the loop, there was a gang of shadow-beasts lying in wait on the other side. They fell upon us, howling.” She stopped, choking back tears.
“And the children?”
Miss Avocet shook her head. All the light seemed to have gone out of her eyes. “The children were merely bait,” she said.
Emma slid her hand into mine and squeezed, and I saw Miss Peregrine’s cheeks glisten in the firelight.
“It was Miss Bunting and myself whom they wanted. I was able to escape, but Miss Bunting was not so fortunate.”
“She was killed?”
“No—abducted. Just as Miss Wren and Miss Treecreeper were when their loops were invaded a fortnight ago. They’re taking ymbrynes, Alma. It’s some sort of coordinated effort. For what purpose, I shudder to imagine.”
“Then they’ll come for us, too,” Miss Peregrine said quietly.
“If they can find you,” replied Miss Avocet. “You are better hidden than most, but you must be ready, Alma.”
Miss Peregrine nodded. Miss Avocet looked helplessly at her hands, trembling in her lap like a broken-winged bird. Her voice began to hitch. “Oh, my dear children. Pray for them. They are all alone now.” And she turned away and wept.
Miss Peregrine pulled the blanket around the old woman’s shoulders and rose. We followed her out, leaving Miss Avocet to her grief.
* * *
We found the children huddled around the sitting-room door. If they hadn’t heard everything Miss Avocet had said, they’d heard enough, and it showed on their anxious faces.
“Poor Miss Avocet,” Claire whimpered, her bottom lip trembling.
“Poor Miss Avocet’s children,” said Olive.
“Are they coming for us now, Miss?” asked Horace.
“We’ll need weapons!” cried Millard.
“Battle-axes!” said Enoch.
“Bombs!” said Hugh.
“Stop that at once!” Miss Peregrine shouted, raising her hands for quiet. “We must all remain calm. Yes, what happened to Miss Avocet was tragic—profoundly so—but it was a tragedy that need not be repeated here. However, we must be on watch. Henceforth, you will travel beyond the house only with my consent, and then only in pairs. Should you observe a person unknown to you, even if they appear to be peculiar, come immediately and inform me. We’ll discuss these and other precautionary measures in the morning. Until then, to bed with you! This is no hour for a meeting.”