“Do you remember when it happened?” I asked. “Early in the war or late?”
“I can tell you the exact day,” he said. “It was the third of September, 1940.”
The air seemed to go out of the room. I flashed to my grandfather’s ashen face, his lips just barely moving, uttering those very words. September third, 1940.
“Are you—you sure about that? That it was that day?”
“I never got to fight,” he said. “Too young by a year. That one night was my whole war. So, yes, I’m sure.”
I felt numb, disconnected. It was too strange. Was someone playing a joke on me, I wondered—a weird, unfunny joke?
“And there weren’t any survivors at all?” Martin asked.
The old man thought for a moment, his gaze drifting up to the ceiling. “Now that you mention it,” he said, “I reckon there were. Just one. A young man, not much older than this boy here.” His rocking stopped as he remembered it. “Walked into town the morning after with not a scratch upon him. Hardly seemed perturbed at all, considering he’d just seen all his mates go to their reward. It was the queerest thing.”
“He was probably in shock,” Martin said.
“I shouldn’t wonder,” replied Oggie. “He spoke only once, to ask my father when the next boat was leaving for the mainland. Said he wanted to take up arms directly and kill the damned monsters who murdered his people.”
Oggie’s story was nearly as far-fetched as the ones Grandpa Portman used to tell, and yet I had no reason to doubt him.
“I knew him,” I said. “He was my grandfather.”
They looked at me, astonished. “Well,” Billy said. “I’ll be blessed.”
I excused myself and stood up. Martin, remarking that I seemed out of sorts, offered to walk me back to the pub, but I declined. I needed to be alone with my thoughts. “Come and see me soon, then,” he said, and I promised I would.
I took the long way back, past the swaying lights of the harbor, the air heavy with brine and with chimney smoke from a hundred hearth fires. I walked to the end of a dock and watched the moon rise over the water, imagining my grandfather standing there on that awful morning after, numb with shock, waiting for a boat that would take him away from all the death he’d endured, to war, and more death. There was no escaping the monsters, not even on this island, no bigger on a map than a grain of sand, protected by mountains of fog and sharp rocks and seething tides. Not anywhere. That was the awful truth my grandfather had tried to protect me from.
In the distance, I heard the generators sputter and spin down, and all the lights along the harbor and in house windows behind me surged for a moment before going dark. I imagined how such a thing might look from an airplane’s height—the whole island suddenly winking out, as if it had never been there at all. A supernova in miniature.
* * *
I walked back by moonlight, feeling small. I found my dad in the pub at the same table where he’d been, a half-eaten plate of beef and gravy congealing into grease before him. “Look who’s back,” he said as I sat down. “I saved your dinner for you.”
“I’m not hungry,” I said, and told him what I’d learned about Grandpa Portman.
He seemed more angry than surprised. “I can’t believe he never brought this up,” he said. “Not one time.” I could understand his anger: it was one thing for a grandparent to withhold something like that from a grandchild, quite another for a father to keep it from his son—and for so long.
I tried to steer the conversation in a more positive direction. “It’s amazing, isn’t it? Everything he went through.”
My father nodded. “I don’t think we’ll ever know the full extent of it.”
“Grandpa Portman really knew how to keep a secret, didn’t he?”
“Are you kidding? The man was an emotional Fort Knox.”
“I wonder if it doesn’t explain something, though. Why he acted so distant when you were little.” Dad gave me a sharp look, and I knew I needed to make my point quickly or risk overstepping. “He’d already lost his family twice before. Once in Poland and then again here—his adopted family. So when you and Aunt Susie came along …”
“Once bombed, twice shy?”
“I’m serious. Don’t you think this could mean that maybe he wasn’t cheating on Grandma, after all?”
“I don’t know, Jake. I guess I don’t believe things are ever that simple.” He let out a sigh, breath fogging the inside of his beer glass. “I think I know what all this really explains, though. Why you and Grandpa were so close.”
“It took him fifty years to get over his fear of having a family. You came along at just the right time.”
I didn’t know how to respond. How do you say I’m sorry your father didn’t love you enough to your own dad? I couldn’t, so instead I just said goodnight and headed upstairs to bed.
* * *
I tossed and turned most of the night. I couldn’t stop thinking about the letters—the one my dad and Aunt Susie had found as kids, from this “other woman,” and the one I’d found a month ago, from Miss Peregrine. The thought that kept me awake was this: what if they were the same woman?
The postmark on Miss Peregrine’s letter was fifteen years old, but by all accounts she’d been blown into the stratosphere back in 1940. To my mind, that left two possible explanations: either my grandfather had been corresponding with a dead person—admittedly unlikely—or the person who wrote the letter was not, in fact, Miss Peregrine, but someone who was using her identity to disguise her own.
Why would you disguise your identity in a letter? Because you have something to hide. Because you are the other woman.
What if the only thing I had discovered on this trip was that my grandfather was an adulterous liar? In his last breaths, was he trying to tell me about the death of his adopted family—or admit to some tawdry, decades-long affair? Maybe it was both, and the truth was that by the time he was a young man he’d had his family torn apart so many times he no longer knew how to have one, or to be faithful to one.
It was all just guesswork, though. I didn’t know, and there was no one to ask. Anyone who might have had the answer was long dead. In less than twenty-four hours, the whole trip had become pointless.
I fell into an uneasy sleep. At dawn, I woke to the sound of something in my room. Rolling over to see what it was, I bolted upright in bed. A large bird was perched on my dresser, staring me down. It had a sleek head feathered in gray and talons that clacked on the wooden dresser as it sidled back and forth along the edge, as if to get a better look at me. I stared back rigidly, wondering if this could be a dream.