“Who wants to see the new addition?” she sang out, pouring herself some chardonnay before marching a troupe of relatives up the stairs.
Ricky and I nodded to each other across the room, wordlessly agreeing to tolerate the other’s presence for an hour or two. We hadn’t spoken since the day he nearly shoved me off the roof, but we both understood the importance of maintaining the illusion of having friends. I was about to go talk to him when my Uncle Bobby grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me into a corner. Bobby was a big barrel-chested guy who drove a big car and lived in a big house and would eventually succumb to a big heart attack from all the foie gras and Monster Thick-burgers he’d packed into his colon over the years, leaving everything to my pothead cousins and his tiny quiet wife. He and my uncle Les were copresidents of Smart Aid, and they were always doing this—pulling people into corners for conspiratorial chats, as if plotting a mob hit rather than complimenting the hostess on her guacamole.
“So, your mom tells me you’re really turning the corner with, uh … on this whole Grandpa thing.”
My thing. No one knew what to call it.
“Acute stress reaction,” I said.
“That’s what I had. Have. Whatever.”
“That’s good. Real good to hear.” He waved his hand as if putting all that unpleasantness behind us. “So your mom and I were thinking. How’d you like to come up to Tampa this summer, see how the family business works? Crack heads with me at HQ for a while? Unless you love stocking shelves!” He laughed so loudly that I took an involuntary step backward. “You could even stay at the house, do a little tarpon fishing with me and your cousins on the weekends.” He then spent five long minutes describing his new yacht, going into elaborate, almost pornographic detail, as if that alone were enough to close the deal. When he finished, he grinned and stuck out his hand for me to shake. “So whaddaya think, J-dogg?”
I guess it was designed to be an offer I couldn’t refuse, but I’d have rather spent the summer in a Siberian labor camp than live with my uncle and his spoiled kids. As for working at Smart Aid HQ, I knew it was a probably inevitable part of my future, but I’d been counting on at least a few more summers of freedom and four years of college before I had to lock myself in a corporate cage. I hesitated, trying to think of a graceful way out. Instead what I said was, “I’m not sure my psychiatrist would think it’s such a great idea right now.”
His bushy eyebrows came together. Nodding vaguely, he said, “Oh, well, sure, of course. We’ll just play it by ear then, pal, how’s that sound?” And then he walked off without waiting for an answer, pretending to see someone across the room whose elbow he needed to grab.
My mother announced that it was time to open presents. She always insisted I do this in front of everyone, which was a problem because, as I may have mentioned already, I’m not a good liar. That also means I’m not good at feigning gratitude for regifted CDs of country Christmas music or subscriptions to Field and Stream—for years Uncle Les had labored under the baffling delusion that I am “outdoorsy”—but for decorum’s sake I forced a smile and held up each unwrapped trinket for all to admire until the pile of presents left on the coffee table had shrunk to just three.
I reached for the smallest one first. Inside was the key to my parents’ four-year-old luxury sedan. They were getting a new one, my mom explained, so I was inheriting the old one. My first car! Everyone oohed and aahed, but I felt my face go hot. It was too much like showing off to accept such a lavish present in front of Ricky, whose car cost less than my monthly allowance at age twelve. It seemed like my parents were always trying to get me to care about money, but I didn’t, really. Then again, it’s easy to say you don’t care about money when you have plenty of it.
The next present was the digital camera I’d begged my parents for all last summer. “Wow,” I said, testing its weight in my hand. “This is awesome.”
“I’m outlining a new bird book,” my dad said. “I was thinking maybe you could take the pictures.”
“A new book!” my mom exclaimed. “That’s a phenomenal idea, Frank. Speaking of which, whatever happened to that last book you were working on?” Clearly, she’d had a few glasses of wine.
“I’m still ironing out a few things,” my dad replied quietly.
“Oh, I see.” I could hear Uncle Bobby snickering.
“Okay!” I said loudly, reaching for the last present. “This one’s from Aunt Susie.”
“Actually,” my aunt said as I began tearing away the wrapping paper, “it’s from your grandfather.”
I stopped midtear. The room went dead quiet, people looking at Aunt Susie as if she’d invoked the name of some evil spirit. My dad’s jaw tensed and my mom shot back the last of her wine.
“Just open it and you’ll see,” Aunt Susie said.
I ripped away the rest of the wrapping paper to find an old hardback book, dog-eared and missing its dust jacket. It was The Selected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I stared at it as if trying to read through the cover, unable to comprehend how it had come to occupy my now-trembling hands. No one but Dr. Golan knew about the last words, and he’d promised on several occasions that unless I threatened to guzzle Drano or do a backflip off the Sunshine Skyway bridge, everything we talked about in his office would be held in confidence.
I looked at my aunt, a question on my face that I didn’t quite know how to ask. She managed a weak smile and said, “I found it in your grandfather’s desk when we were cleaning out the house. He wrote your name in the front. I think he meant for you to have it.”
God bless Aunt Susie. She had a heart after all.
“Neat. I didn’t know your grandpa was a reader,” my mom said, trying to lighten the mood. “That was thoughtful.”
“Yes,” said my dad through clenched teeth. “Thank you, Susan.”
I opened the book. Sure enough, the title page bore an inscription in my grandfather’s shaky handwriting.
I got up to leave, afraid I might start crying in front of everyone, and something slipped out from between the pages and fell to the floor.
I bent to pick it up. It was a letter.
Emerson. The letter.
I felt the blood drain from my face. My mother leaned toward me and in a tense whisper asked if I needed a drink of water, which was Mom-speak for keep it together, people are staring. I said, “I feel a little, uh …” and then, with one hand over my stomach, I bolted to my room.
* * *
The letter was handwritten on fine, unlined paper in looping script so ornate it was almost calligraphy, the black ink varying in tone like that of an old fountain pen. It read:
As promised, the writer had enclosed an old snapshot.
I held it under the glow of my desk lamp, trying to read some detail in the woman’s silhouetted face, but there was none to find. The image was so strange, and yet it was nothing like my grandfather’s pictures. There were no tricks here. It was just a woman—a woman smoking a pipe. It looked like Sherlock Holmes’s pipe, curved and drooping from her lips. My eyes kept coming back to it.
Was this what my grandfather had meant for me to find? Yes, I thought, it has to be—not the letters of Emerson, but a letter, tucked inside Emerson’s book. But who was this headmistress, this Peregrine woman? I studied the envelope for a return address but found only a fading postmark that read Cairnholm Is., Cymru, UK.
UK—that was Britain. I knew from studying atlases as a kid that Cymru meant Wales. Cairnholm Is had to be the island Miss Peregrine had mentioned in her letter. Could it have been the same island where my grandfather lived as a boy?
Nine months ago he’d told me to “find the bird.” Nine years ago he had sworn that the children’s home where he’d lived was protected by one—by “a bird who smoked a pipe.” At age seven I’d taken this statement literally, but the headmistress in the picture was smoking a pipe, and her name was Peregrine, a kind of hawk. What if the bird my grandfather wanted me to find was actually the woman who’d rescued him—the headmistress of the children’s home? Maybe she was still on the island, after all these years, old as dirt but sustained by a few of her wards, children who’d grown up but never left.
For the first time, my grandfather’s last words began to make a strange kind of sense. He wanted me to go to the island and find this woman, his old headmistress. If anyone knew the secrets of his childhood, it would be her. But the envelope’s postmark was fifteen years old. Was it possible she was still alive? I did some quick calculations in my head: If she’d been running a children’s home in 1939 and was, say, twenty-five at the time, then she’d be in her late nineties today. So it was possible—there were people older than that in Englewood who still lived by themselves and drove—and even if Miss Peregrine had passed away in the time since she’d sent the letter, there might still be people on Cairnholm who could help me, people who had known Grandpa Portman as a kid. People who knew his secrets.
We, she had written. Those few who remain.
* * *
As you can imagine, convincing my parents to let me spend part of my summer on a tiny island off the coast of Wales was no easy task. They—particularly my mother—had many compelling reasons why this was a wretched idea, including the cost, the fact that I was supposed to spend the summer with Uncle Bobby learning how to run a drug empire, and that I had no one to accompany me, since neither of my parents had any interest in going and I certainly couldn’t go alone. I had no effective rebuttals, and my reason for wanting to make the trip—I think I’m supposed to—wasn’t something I could explain without sounding even crazier than they already feared I was. I certainly wasn’t going to tell my parents about Grandpa Portman’s last words or the letter or the photo—they would’ve had me committed. The only sane-sounding arguments I could come up with were things like, “I want to learn more about our family history” and the never-persuasive “Chad Kramer and Josh Bell are going to Europe this summer. Why can’t I?” I brought these up as frequently as possible without seeming desperate (even once resorting to “it’s not like you don’t have the money,” a tactic I instantly regretted), but it looked like it wasn’t going to happen.
Then several things happened that helped my case enormously. First, Uncle Bobby got cold feet about my spending the summer with him—because who wants a nutcase living in their house? So my schedule was suddenly wide open. Next, my dad learned that Cairnholm Island is a super-important bird habitat, and, like, half the world’s population of some bird that gives him a total ornithology boner lives there. He started talking a lot about his hypothetical new bird book, and whenever the subject came up I did my best to encourage him and sound interested. But the most important factor was Dr. Golan. After a surprisingly minimal amount of coaxing by me, he shocked us all by not only signing off on the idea but also encouraging my parents to let me go.
“It could be important for him,” he told my mother after a session one afternoon. “It’s a place that’s been so mythologized by his grandfather that visiting could only serve to demystify it. He’ll see that it’s just as normal and unmagical as anyplace else, and, by extension, his grandfather’s fantasies will lose their power. It could be a highly effective way of combating fantasy with reality.”
“But I thought he already didn’t believe that stuff,” my mother said, turning to me. “Do you, Jake?”
“I don’t,” I assured her.
“Not consciously he doesn’t,” Dr. Golan said. “But it’s his unconscious that’s causing him problems right now. The dreams, the anxiety.”
“And you really think going there could help?” my mother said, narrowing her eyes at him as if readying herself to hear the unvarnished truth. When it came to things I should or should not be doing, Dr. Golan’s word was law.
“I do,” he replied.
And that was all it took.
* * *
After that, things fell into place with astonishing speed. Plane tickets were bought, schedules scheduled, plans laid. My dad and I would go for three weeks in June. I wondered if that was too long, but he claimed he needed at least that much time to make a thorough study of the island’s bird colonies. I thought mom would object—three whole weeks!—but the closer our trip got, the more excited for us she seemed. “My two men,” she would say, beaming, “off on a big adventure!”
I found her enthusiasm kind of touching, actually—until the afternoon I overheard her talking on the phone to a friend, venting about how relieved she’d be to “have her life back” for three weeks and not have “two needy children to worry about.”
I love you too, I wanted to say with as much hurtful sarcasm as I could muster, but she hadn’t seen me, and I kept quiet. I did love her, of course, but mostly just because loving your mom is mandatory, not because she was someone I think I’d like very much if I met her walking down the street. Which she wouldn’t be, anyway; walking is for poor people.
During the three-week window between the end of school and the start of our trip, I did my best to verify that Ms. Alma LeFay Peregrine still resided among the living, but Internet searches turned up nothing. Assuming she was still alive, I had hoped to get her on the phone and at least warn her that I was coming, but I soon discovered that almost no one on Cairnholm even had a phone. I found only one number for the entire island, so that’s the one I dialed.