The door to our compartment slid open. Millard quickly flipped up the hood of his jacket to hide his face—or rather, his apparent lack of one.
A young woman stood in the door. She wore a uniform and held a box of goods for sale. “Cigarettes?” she asked. “Chocolate?”
“No, thanks,” I said.
She looked at me. “You’re an American.”
She gave me a pitying smile. “Hope you’re having a nice trip.
You picked an awkward time to visit Britain.”
I laughed. “So I’ve been told.”
She went out. Millard shifted his body to watch her go. “Pretty,” he said distantly.
It occurred to me that it had probably been a lot of years since he’d seen a girl outside of those few who lived on Cairnholm. But what chance would someone like him have with a normal girl, anyway?
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d been looking at him any particular way. “Like what?”
“Like you feel bad for me.”
“I don’t,” I said.
But I did.
Then Millard stood up from his seat, took off his coat, and disappeared. I didn’t see him again for a while.
* * *
The hours rolled on, and the children passed them by telling stories. They told stories about famous peculiars and about Miss Peregrine in the strange, exciting, early days of her loop, and eventually they came around to telling their own stories. Some I had heard before—like how Enoch had raised the dead in his father’s funeral parlor, or the way Bronwyn, at the tender age of ten, had snapped her abusive stepfather’s neck without quite meaning to—but others were new to me. For as old as they were, the kids didn’t often lapse into bouts of nostalgia.
Horace’s dreams had started when he was just six, but he didn’t realize they were predictive of anything until two years later, when one night he dreamed about the sinking of the Lusitania and the next day heard about it on the radio. Hugh, from a young age, had loved honey more than any other food, and at five he’d started eating honeycomb along with it—so ravenously that the first time he accidentally swallowed a bee, he didn’t notice until he felt it buzzing around in his stomach. “The bee didn’t seem to mind a bit,” Hugh said, “so I shrugged and went on eating. Pretty soon I had a whole hive down there.” When the bees needed to pollinate, he’d gone to find a field of blooming flowers, and that’s where he met Fiona, who was sleeping among them.
Hugh told her story, too. Fiona was a refugee from Ireland, he said, where she’d been growing food for the people in her village during the famine of the 1840s—until she was accused of being a witch and chased out. This is something Hugh had gleaned only after years of subtle, nonverbal communication with Fiona, who didn’t speak not because she couldn’t, Hugh said, but “because the things she’d witnessed in the famine were so horrific they stole her voice away.”
Then it was Emma’s turn, but she had no interest in telling her story.
“Why not?” whined Olive. “Come on, tell about when you found out you were peculiar!”
“It’s ancient history,” Emma muttered, “relevant to nothing. And hadn’t we better be thinking about the future instead of the past?”
“Someone’s being a grumplepuss,” said Olive.
Emma got up and left, heading to the back of the car where no one would bother her. I let a minute or two pass so that she wouldn’t feel hounded, then went and sat next to her. She saw me coming and hid behind a newspaper, pretending to read.
“Because I don’t care to discuss it,” she said from behind the paper. “That’s why!”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yes, but you were going to ask, so I saved you the trouble.”
“Just to make it fair,” I said, “I’ll tell you something about me first.”
She peeked over the top of the paper, slightly intrigued. “But don’t I know everything about you already?”
“Ha,” I said. “Not hardly.”
“All right, then tell me three things about you I don’t know. Dark secrets only, please. Quickly, now!”
I racked my brain for interesting factoids about myself, but I could only think of embarrassing ones. “Okay, one. When I was little, I was really sensitive to seeing violence on TV. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t real. Even if it was just a cartoon mouse punching a cartoon cat, I would freak out and start crying.”
Her newspaper came down some. “Bless your tender soul!” she said. “And now look at you—impaling monstrous creatures right through their leaky eyeballs.”
“Two,” I said. “I was born on Halloween, and until I was eight years old my parents had me convinced that the candy people gave out when I knocked on their doors was birthday presents.”
“Hmm,” she said, lowering the paper a little more. “That one was only middlingly dark. You may continue nevertheless.”
“Three. When we first met, I was convinced you were about to cut my throat. But scared as I was, there was this tiny voice in my head saying: If this is the last face you ever see, at least it’s a beautiful one.”
The paper fell to her lap. “Jacob, that’s …” She looked at the floor, then out the window, then back at me. “What a sweet thing to say.”
“It’s true,” I said, and slid my hand across the seat to hers.
“Okay, your turn.”
“I’m not trying to hide anything, you know. It’s just that those musty stories make me feel ten years old again, and unwanted. That never goes away, no matter how many magical summer days have come between.”
That hurt was still with her, raw even all these years later.
“I want to know you,” I said. “Who you are, where you come from. That’s all.”
She shifted uncomfortably. “I never told you about my parents?”
“All I know I heard from Golan, that night in the icehouse. He said they gave you away to a traveling circus?”
“No, not quite.” She slid down in her seat, her voice falling to a whisper. “I suppose it’s better for you to know the truth than rumors and speculation. So, here goes.
“I started manifesting when I was just ten. Kept setting my bed on fire in my sleep, until my parents took away all my sheets and made me lie on a bare metal cot in a bare room with nothing flammable at all in it. They thought I was a pyromaniac and a liar, and the fact that I myself never seemed to get burned was as good as proof. But I couldn’t be burned, something even I didn’t know at first. I was ten: I didn’t know fig about anything! It’s a very scary thing, manifesting without understanding what’s happening to you, though it’s a fright nearly all peculiar children experience because so few of us are born to peculiar parents.”