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.