“But Miss—” Enoch began.
The children scurried off to their rooms. “As for you, Mr. Portman, I’m not terribly comfortable with you traveling alone. I think perhaps you should stay, at least until things calm a bit.”
“I can’t just disappear. My dad will flip out.”
She frowned. “In that case, you must at least spend the night. I insist upon it.”
“I will, but only if you’ll tell me everything you know about the creatures that killed my grandfather.”
She tilted her head, studying me with something like amusement. “Very well, Mr. Portman, I won’t argue with your need to know. Install yourself on the divan for the evening and we’ll discuss it first thing.”
“It has to be now.” I’d waited ten years to hear the truth, and I couldn’t wait another minute. “Please.”
“At times, young man, you tread a precariously thin line between being charmingly headstrong and insufferably pigheaded.” She turned to Emma. “Miss Bloom, would you fetch my flask of coca-wine? It seems I won’t be sleeping tonight, and I shall have to indulge if I am to keep awake.”
* * *
The study was too close to the children’s bedrooms for a late-night talk, so the headmistress and I adjourned to a little greenhouse that edged the woods. We sat on overturned planters among climbing roses, a kerosene lantern on the grass between us, dawn not yet broken beyond the glass walls. Miss Peregrine drew a pipe from her pocket, and bent to light it in the lamp flame. She drew a few thoughtful puffs, sending up wreaths of blue smoke, then began.
“In ancient times people mistook us for gods,” she said, “but we peculiars are no less mortal than common folk. Time loops merely delay the inevitable, and the price we pay for using them is hefty—an irrevocable divorce from the ongoing present. As you know, long-term loop dwellers can but dip their toes into the present lest they wither and die. This has been the arrangement since time immemorial.”
She took another puff, then continued.
“Some years ago, around the turn of the last century, a splinter faction emerged among our people—a coterie of disaffected peculiars with dangerous ideas. They believed they had discovered a method by which the function of time loops could be perverted to confer upon the user a kind of immortality; not merely the suspension of aging, but the reversal of it. They spoke of eternal youth enjoyed outside the confines of loops, of jumping back and forth from future to past with impunity, suffering none of the ill effects that have always prevented such recklessness—in other words, of mastering time without being mastered by death. The whole notion was mad—absolute bunkum—a refutation of the empirical laws that govern everything!”
She exhaled sharply, then paused for a moment to collect herself.
“In any case. My two brothers, technically brilliant but rather lacking in sense, were taken with the idea. They even had the audacity to request my assistance in making it a reality. You’re talking about making yourselves into gods, I said. It can’t be done. And even if it can, it shouldn’t. But they would not be deterred. Having grown up among Miss Avocet’s ymbrynes-in-training, they knew more about our unique art than most peculiar males—just enough, I’m afraid, to be dangerous. Despite warnings, even threats, from the Council, in the summer of 1908 my brothers and several hundred members of this renegade faction—a number of powerful ymbrynes among them, traitors every one—ventured into the Siberian tundra to conduct their hateful experiment. For the site they chose a nameless old loop unused for centuries. We expected them to return within a week, tails between their legs, humbled by the immutable nature of nature. Instead, their comeuppance was far more dramatic: a catastrophic explosion that rattled windows as far as the Azores. Anyone within five hundred kilometers surely thought it was the end of the world. We assumed they’d all been killed, that obscene world-cracking bang their last collective utterance.”
“But they survived,” I guessed.
“In a manner of speaking. Others might call the state of being they subsequently assumed a kind of living damnation. Weeks later there began a series of attacks upon peculiars by awful creatures who, apart from their shadows, could not be seen except by peculiars like yourself—our very first clashes with the hollowgast. It was some time before we realized that these tentacle-mawed abominations were in fact our wayward brothers, crawled from the smoking crater left behind by their experiment. Rather than becoming gods, they had transformed themselves into devils.”
“What went wrong?”
“That is still a matter of debate. One theory is that they reverse-aged themselves to a time before even their souls had been conceived, which is why we call them hollowgast—because their hearts, their souls, are empty. In a cruel twist of irony, they achieved the immortality they’d been seeking. It’s believed that the hollows can live thousands of years, but it is a life of constant physical torment, of humiliating debasement—feeding on stray animals, living in isolation—and of insatiable hunger for the flesh of their former kin, because our blood is their only hope for salvation. If a hollow gorges itself on enough peculiars, it becomes a wight.”
“That word again,” I said. “When we first met, Emma accused me of being one.”
“I might have thought the same thing, if I hadn’t observed you beforehand.”
“What are they?”
“If being a hollow is a living hell—and it most certainly is—then being a wight is akin to purgatory. Wights are almost common. They have no peculiar abilities. But because they can pass for human, they live in servitude to their hollow brethren, acting as scouts and spies and procurers of flesh. It’s a hierarchy of the damned that aims someday to turn all hollows into wights and all peculiars into corpses.”
“But what’s stopping them?” I said. “If they used to be peculiar, don’t they know all your hiding places?”
“Fortunately, they don’t appear to retain any memory of their former lives. And though wights aren’t as strong or as frightening as hollows, they’re often just as dangerous. Unlike hollows, they’re ruled by more than instinct, and are often able to blend into the general population. It can be difficult to distinguish them from common folk, though there are certain indicators. Their eyes, for instance. Curiously, wights lack pupils.”
I broke out in goosebumps, remembering the white-eyed neighbor I’d seen watering his overgrown lawn the night my grandfather was killed. “I think I’ve seen one. I thought he was just an old blind man.”
“Then you are more observant than most,” she said. “Wights are adept at passing unnoticed. They tend to adopt personas invisible to society: the gray-suited man on the train; the indigent begging for spare coins; just faces in the crowd. Though some have been known to risk exposure by placing themselves in more prominent positions—physicians, politicians, clergymen—in order to interact with a greater number of people, or to have some measure of power over them, so that they can more easily discover peculiars who might be hiding among common folk—as Abe was.”
Miss Peregrine reached for a photo album she’d brought from the house and began to flip through it. “These have been reproduced and distributed to peculiars everywhere, rather like wanted posters. Look here,” she said, pointing to a picture of two girls astride a fake reindeer, a chilling blank-eyed Santa Claus peeping out through its antlers. “This wight was discovered working in an American department store at Christmas. He was able to interact with a great many children in a remarkably short time—touching them, interrogating them—screening for signs of peculiarity.”
She turned the page to reveal a photo of a sadistic-looking dentist. “This wight worked as an oral surgeon. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the skull he’s posing with belonged to one of his peculiar victims.”
She flipped the page again, this time to a picture of a little girl cowering before a looming shadow. “This is Marcie. She left us thirty years ago to live with a common family in the countryside. I pleaded with her to stay, but she was determined. Not long after, she was snatched by a wight as she waited for the school bus. A camera was found at the scene with this undeveloped picture inside.”
“Who took it?”
“The wight himself. They are fond of dramatic gestures, and invariably leave behind some taunting memento.”
I studied the pictures, a small, familiar dread turning inside me.
When I couldn’t bear to look at the pictures anymore, I shut the album.
“I tell you all this because to know it is your birthright,” Miss Peregrine said, “but also because I need your help. You are the only one among us who can go outside the loop without arousing suspicion. So long as you’re with us, and you insist upon traveling back and forth, I need you to watch for new arrivals to the island and report them to me.”
“There was one just the other day,” I said, thinking of the birder who had upset my dad.
“Did you see his eyes?” she asked.
“Not really. It was dark, and he was wearing a big hat that hid part of his face.”
Miss Peregrine chewed her knuckle, her brow furrowing.
“Why? Do you think he could be one of them?”
“It’s impossible to be certain without seeing the eyes,” she said, “but the possibility that you were followed to the island concerns me very much.”
“What do you mean? By a wight?”
“Perhaps the very one you described seeing on the night of your grandfather’s death. It would explain why they chose to spare your life—so that you could lead them to an even richer prize: this place.”
“But how could they have known I was peculiar? I didn’t even know!”
“If they knew about your grandfather, you can be certain they knew about you, as well.”
I thought about all the chances they must’ve had to kill me. All the times I’d felt them nearby in the weeks after Grandpa Portman died. Had they been watching me? Waiting for me to do exactly what I did, and come here?
Feeling overwhelmed, I put my head down on my knees. “I don’t suppose you could let me have a sip of that wine,” I said.
All of the sudden I felt my chest clench up. “Will I ever be safe anywhere?” I asked her.
Miss Peregrine touched my shoulder. “You’re safe here,” she said. “And you may live with us as long as you like.”
I tried to speak, but all that came out was little stutters. “But I—I can’t—my parents.”
“They may love you,” she whispered, “but they’ll never understand.”
* * *
By the time I got back to town, the sun was casting its first long shadows across the streets, all-night drinkers were wheeling around lampposts on their reluctant journeys home, fishermen were trudging soberly to the harbor in great black boots, and my father was just beginning to stir from a heavy sleep. As he rolled out of his bed I was crawling into mine, pulling the covers over my sandy clothes only seconds before he opened the door to check on me.
I groaned and rolled away from him, and he went out. Late that afternoon I woke to find a sympathetic note and a packet of flu pills on the common room table. I smiled and felt briefly guilty for lying to him. Then I began to worry about him, out there wandering across the headlands with his binoculars and little notebook, possibly in the company of a sheep-murdering madman.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes and throwing on a rain jacket, I walked a circuit around the village and then around the nearby cliffs and beaches, hoping to see either my father or the strange ornithologist—and get a good look at his eyes—but I didn’t find either of them. It was nearing dusk when I finally gave up and returned to the Priest Hole, where I found my father at the bar, tipping back a beer with the regulars. Judging from the empty bottles around him, he’d been there a while.
I sat down next to him and asked if he’d seen the bearded birder. He said he hadn’t.
“Well, if you do,” I said, “do me a favor and keep your distance, okay?”
He looked at me strangely. “Why?”
“He just rubs me the wrong way. What if he’s some nutcase? What if he’s the one who killed those sheep?”
“Where do you get these bizarre ideas?”
I wanted to tell him. I wanted to explain everything, and for him to tell me he understood and offer some tidbit of parental advice. I wanted, in that moment, for everything to go back to the way it had been before we came here; before I ever found that letter from Miss Peregrine, back when I was just a sort-of-normal messed-up rich kid in the suburbs. Instead, I sat next to my dad for awhile and talked about nothing, and I tried to remember what my life had been like in that unfathomably distant era that was four weeks ago, or imagine what it might be like four weeks from now—but I couldn’t. Eventually we ran out of nothing to talk about, and I excused myself and went upstairs to be alone.
On Tuesday night, most of what I thought I understood about myself had turned out to be wrong. On Sunday morning, my dad and I were supposed to pack our things and go home. I had just a few days to decide what to do. Stay or go—neither option seemed good. How could I possibly stay here and leave behind everthing I’d known? But after all I’d learned, how could I go home?
Even worse, there was no one I could talk to about it. Dad was out of the question. Emma made frequent and passionate arguments as to why I should stay, none of which acknowledged the life I would be abandoning (however meager it seemed), or how the sudden inexplicable disappearance of their only child might affect my parents, or the stifling suffocation that Emma herself had admitted feeling inside the loop. She would only say, “With you here, it’ll be better.”