I called out for my dad, and at the sound of my voice the bird launched itself off the dresser. I threw my arm across my face and rolled away, and when I peeked again it was gone, flown out the open window.
My dad stumbled in, bleary-eyed. “What’s going on?”
I showed him the talon marks on the dresser and a feather that had landed on the floor. “God, that’s weird,” he said, turning it over in his hands. “Peregrines almost never come this close to humans.”
I thought maybe I’d heard him wrong. “Did you say peregrines?”
He held up the feather. “A peregrine falcon,” he said. “They’re amazing creatures—the fastest birds on earth. They’re like shape-shifters, the way they streamline their bodies in the air.” The name was just a weird coincidence, but it left me with an uncanny feeling I couldn’t shake.
Over breakfast, I began to wonder if I’d given up too easily. Though it was true there was no one left alive whom I could talk to about my grandfather, there was still the house, a lot of it unexplored. If it had ever held answers about my grandfather—in the form of letters, maybe, or a photo album or a diary—they’d probably burned up or rotted away decades ago. But if I left the island without making sure, I knew I’d regret it.
And that is how someone who is unusually susceptible to nightmares, night terrors, the Creeps, the Willies, and Seeing Things That Aren’t Really There talks himself into making one last trip to the abandoned, almost-certainly-haunted house where a dozen or more children met their untimely end.
It was an almost-too-perfect morning. Leaving the pub felt like stepping into one of those heavily retouched photos that come loaded as wallpaper on new computers: streets of artfully decrepit cottages stretched into the distance, giving way to green fields sewn together by meandering rock walls, the whole scene topped by scudding white clouds. But beyond all that, above the houses and fields and sheep doddering around like little puffs of cotton candy, I could see tongues of dense fog licking over the ridge in the distance, where this world ended and the next one began, cold, damp, and sunless.
I walked over the ridge and straight into a rain shower. True to form, I had forgotten my rubber boots, and the path was a rapidly deepening ribbon of mud. But getting a little wet seemed vastly preferable to climbing that hill twice in one morning, so I bent my head against the spitting rain and trudged onward. Soon I passed the shack, dim outlines of sheep huddled inside against the chill, and then the mist-shrouded bog, silent and ghostly. I thought about the twenty-seven-hundred-year-old resident of Cairnholm’s museum and wondered how many more like him these fields held, undiscovered, arrested in death; how many more had given up their lives here, looking for heaven.
By the time I reached the children’s home, what had begun as a drizzle was a full-on downpour. There was no time to dally in the house’s feral yard and reflect upon its malevolent shape—the way the doorless doorway seemed to swallow me as I dove through it, the way the hall’s rain-bloated floorboards gave a little beneath my shoes. I stood wringing water from my shirt and shaking out my hair, and when I was as dry as I was going to get—which was not very—I began to search. For what, I wasn’t sure. A box of letters? My grandfather’s name scribbled on a wall? It all seemed so unlikely.
I roved around peeling up mats of old newspaper and looking under chairs and tables. I imagined uncovering some horrible scene—a tangle of skeletons dressed in fire-blackened rags—but all I found were rooms that had become more outside than inside, character stripped away by moisture and wind and layers of dirt. The ground floor was hopeless. I went back to the staircase, knowing this time I would have to climb it. The only question was, up or down? One strike against going upstairs was its limited options for quick escape (from squatters or ghouls or whatever else my anxious mind could invent) other than hurling myself from an upper-story window. Downstairs had the same problem, and with the added detractor of being dark, and me without a flashlight. So upstairs it was.
The steps protested my weight with a symphony of shudders and creaks, but they held, and what I discovered upstairs—compared to the bombed-out ground floor, at least—was like a time capsule. Arranged along a hallway striped with peeling wallpaper, the rooms were in surprisingly good shape. Though one or two had been invaded by mold where a broken window had let in the rain, the rest were packed with things that seemed only a layer or two of dust away from new: a mildewed shirt tossed casually over the back of a chair, loose change skimming a nightstand. It was easy to believe that everything was just as the children had left it, as if time had stopped the night they died.
I went from room to room, examining their contents like an archaeologist. There were wooden toys moldering in a box; crayons on a windowsill, their colors dulled by the light of ten thousand afternoons; a dollhouse with dolls inside, lifers in an ornate prison. In a modest library, the creep of moisture had bowed the shelves into crooked smiles. I ran my finger along the balding spines, as if considering pulling one out to read. There were classics like Peter Pan and The Secret Garden, histories written by authors forgotten by history, textbooks of Latin and Greek. In the corner were corralled a few old desks. This had been their classroom, I realized, and Miss Peregrine, their teacher.
I tried to open a pair of heavy doors, twisting the handle, but they were swelled shut—so I took a running start and rammed them with my shoulder. They flew open with a rasping shriek and I fell face-first into the next room. As I picked myself up and looked around, I realized that it could only have belonged to Miss Peregrine. It was like a room in Sleeping Beauty’s castle, with cobwebbed candles mounted in wall sconces, a mirrored vanity table topped with crystal bottles, and a giant oak bed. I pictured the last time she’d been here, scrambling out from under the sheets in the middle of the night to the whine of an air-raid siren, rounding up the children, all groggy and grasping for coats on their way downstairs.
Were you scared? I wondered. Did you hear the planes coming?
I began to feel unusual. I imagined I was being watched; that the children were still here, preserved like the bog boy, inside the walls. I could feel them peering at me through cracks and knotholes.
I drifted into the next room. Weak light shone through a window. Petals of powder-blue wallpaper drooped toward a couple of small beds, still clad in dusty sheets. I knew, somehow, that this had been my grandfather’s room.