“Why?” said Worm. “We told you it was full of shit!”
I got in Dylan’s face. “Are you gonna show me the house or not?”
“He’s serious,” said Worm, wiping tears from his eyes.
“Of course I’m serious!”
Dylan’s smile faded. “I thought you were taking a piss, mate.”
“Taking a what?”
“Well, I wasn’t.”
The boys exchanged an uneasy look. Dylan whispered something to Worm. Worm whispered something back. Finally Dylan turned and pointed up the path. “If you really want to see it,” he said, “keep going past the bog and through the woods. It’s a big old place. You can’t miss it.”
“What the hell. You’re supposed to go with me!”
Worm looked away and said, “This is as far as we go.”
“It just is.” And they turned and began to trudge back the way we’d come, receding into the fog.
I weighed my options. I could tuck tail and follow my tormenters back to town, or I could go ahead alone and lie to Dad about it.
After four seconds of intense deliberation, I was on my way.
* * *
A vast, lunar bog stretched away into the mist from either side of the path, just brown grass and tea-colored water as far as I could see, featureless but for the occasional mound of piled-up stones. It ended abruptly at a forest of skeletal trees, branches spindling up like the tips of wet paintbrushes, and for a while the path became so lost beneath fallen trunks and carpets of ivy that navigating it was a matter of faith. I wondered how an elderly person like Miss Peregrine would ever be able to negotiate such an obstacle course. She must get deliveries, I thought, though the path looked like it hadn’t seen a footprint in months, if not years.
I scrambled over a giant trunk slick with moss, and the path took a sharp turn. The trees parted like a curtain and suddenly there it was, cloaked in fog, looming atop a weed-choked hill. The house. I understood at once why the boys had refused to come.
My grandfather had described it a hundred times, but in his stories the house was always a bright, happy place—big and rambling, yes, but full of light and laughter. What stood before me now was no refuge from monsters but a monster itself, staring down from its perch on the hill with vacant hunger. Trees burst forth from broken windows and skins of scabrous vine gnawed at the walls like antibodies attacking a virus—as if nature itself had waged war against it—but the house seemed unkillable, resolutely upright despite the wrongness of its angles and the jagged teeth of sky visible through sections of collapsed roof.
I tried to convince myself that it was possible someone could still live there, run-down as it was. Such things weren’t unheard of where I came from—a falling-down wreck on the edge of town, curtains permanently drawn, that would turn out to have been home to some ancient recluse who’d been surviving on ramen and toenail clippings since time immemorial, though no one realizes it until a property appraiser or an overly ambitious census taker barges in to find the poor soul returning to dust in a La-Z-Boy. People get too old to care for a place, their family writes them off for one reason or another—it’s sad, but it happens. Which meant, like it or not, that I was going to have to knock.
I gathered what scrawny courage I had and waded through waist-high weeds to the porch, all broken tile and rotting wood, to peek through a cracked window. All I could make out through the smeared glass were the outlines of furniture, so I knocked on the door and stood back to wait in the eerie silence, tracing the shape of Miss Peregrine’s letter in my pocket. I’d taken it along in case I needed to prove who I was, but as a minute ticked by, then two, it seemed less and less likely that I would need it.
Climbing down into the yard, I circled the house looking for another way in, taking the measure of the place, but it seemed almost without measure, as though with every corner I turned the house sprouted new balconies and turrets and chimneys. Then I came around back and saw my opportunity: a doorless doorway, bearded with vines, gaping and black; an open mouth just waiting to swallow me. Just looking at it made my skin crawl, but I hadn’t come halfway around the world just to run away screaming at the sight of a scary house. I thought of all the horrors Grandpa Portman had faced in his life, and felt my resolve harden. If there was anyone to find inside, I would find them. I mounted the crumbling steps and crossed the threshold.
* * *
Standing in a tomb-dark hallway just inside the door, I stared frozenly at what looked for all the world like skins hanging from hooks. After a queasy moment in which I imagined some twisted cannibal leaping from the shadows with knife in hand, I realized they were only coats rotted to rags and green with age. I shuddered involuntarily and took a deep breath. I’d only explored ten feet of the house and was already about to foul my underwear. Keep it together, I told myself, and then slowly moved forward, heart hammering in my chest.
Each room was a disaster more incredible than the last. Newspapers gathered in drifts. Scattered toys, evidence of children long gone, lay skinned in dust. Creeping mold had turned window-adjacent walls black and furry. Fireplaces were throttled with vines that had descended from the roof and begun to spread across the floors like alien tentacles. The kitchen was a science experiment gone terribly wrong—entire shelves of jarred food had exploded from sixty seasons of freezing and thawing, splattering the wall with evil-looking stains—and fallen plaster lay so thickly over the dining room floor that for a moment I thought it had snowed indoors. At the end of a light-starved corridor I tested my weight on a rickety staircase, my boots leaving fresh tracks in layers of dust. The steps groaned as if woken from a long sleep. If anyone was upstairs, they’d been there a very long time.
Finally I came upon a pair of rooms missing entire walls, into which a little forest of underbrush and stunted trees had grown. I stood in the sudden breeze wondering what could possibly have done that kind of damage, and began to get the feeling that something terrible had happened here. I couldn’t square my grandfather’s idyllic stories with this nightmare house, nor the idea that he’d found refuge here with the sense of disaster that pervaded it. There was more left to explore, but suddenly it seemed like a waste of time; it was impossible that anyone could still be living here, even the most misanthropic recluse. I left the house feeling like I was further than ever from the truth.