I felt my face go hot. I’d never been called a liar by a nonrelative adult before. “I told you already. We rented those rooms! Just ask Kev if you don’t believe me!”
“I don’t know no Kev, and I don’t fancy bein’ fed stories,” he said coolly. “There ain’t any rooms to let around here, and the only one lives upstairs is me!”
I looked around, expecting someone to crack a smile, to let me in on the joke. But the men’s faces were like stone.
“He’s American,” observed a man sporting a prodigious beard. “Army, could be.”
“Bollocks,” another one growled. “Look at ’im. He’s practically a fetus!”
“His mack, though,” the bearded one said, reaching out to pinch the sleeve of my jacket. “You’d have a helluva time finding that in a shop. Army—gotta be.”
“Look,” I said, “I’m not in the army, and I’m not trying to pull anything on you, I swear! I just want to find my dad, get my stuff, and—”
“American, my arse!” bellowed a fat man. He peeled his considerable girth off a stool to stand between me and the door, toward which I’d been slowly backing. “His accent sounds rubbish to me. I’ll wager he’s a Jerry spy!”
“I’m not a spy,” I said weakly. “Just lost.”
“Got that right,” he said with a laugh. “I say we get the truth out of ’im the old-fashioned way. With a rope!”
Drunken shouts of assent. I couldn’t tell if they were being serious or just “taking a piss,” but I didn’t much care to stick around and find out. One undiluted instinct coursed through the anxious muddle in my brain: Run. It would be a lot easier to figure out what the hell was going on without a roomful of drunks threatening to lynch me. Of course, running away would only convince them of my guilt, but I didn’t care.
I tried to step around the fat man.
He made a grab for me, but slow and drunk is no match for fast and scared shitless. I faked left and then dodged around him to the right. He howled with rage as the rest unglued themselves from barstools to lunge at me, but I slipped through their fingers and ran out the door and into the bright afternoon.
* * *
I charged down the street, my feet pounding divots into the gravel, the angry voices gradually fading behind me. At the first corner I made a skidding turn to escape their line of sight, cutting through a muddy yard, where squawking chickens dove out of my way, and then an open lot, where a line of women stood waiting to pump water from an old well, their heads turning as I flew past. A thought I had no time to entertain flitted through my head—Hey, where’d the Waiting Woman go?—but then I came to a low wall and had to concentrate on vaulting it—plant the hand, lift the feet, swing over. I landed in a busy path where I was nearly run down by a speeding cart. The driver yelled something derogatory about my mother as his horse’s flank brushed my chest, leaving hoof prints and a wheel track just inches from my toes.
I had no idea what was happening. I understood only two things: that I was quite possibly in the midst of losing my mind, and that I needed to get away from people until I could figure out whether or not I actually was. To that end, I dashed into an alley behind two rows of cottages, where it seemed there would be lots of hiding places, and made for the edge of town. I slowed to a fast walk, hoping that a muddy and bedraggled American boy who was not running would attract somewhat less attention than one who was.
My attempt to act normal was not helped by the fact that every little noise or fleeting movement made me jump. I nodded and waved to a woman hanging laundry, but like everyone else she just stared at me. I walked faster.
I heard a strange noise behind me and ducked into an outhouse. As I waited there, hunkering behind the half-closed door, my eyes scanned the graffitied walls.
Dooleys a buggerloving arsehumper.
Wot, no sugar?
Finally, a dog slinked by, trailed by a litter of yapping puppies. I let out my breath and began to relax a little. Collecting my nerves, I stepped back into the alley.
Something grabbed me by the hair. Before I’d even had a chance to cry out, a hand whipped around from behind and pressed something sharp to my throat.
“Scream and I’ll cut you,” came a voice.
Keeping the blade to my neck, my assailant pushed me against the outhouse wall and stepped around to face me. To my great surprise, it wasn’t one of the men from the pub. It was the girl. She wore a simple white dress and a hard expression, her face strikingly pretty even though she appeared to be giving serious thought to gouging out my windpipe.
“What are you?” she hissed.
“An—uh—I’m an American,” I stammered, not quite sure what she was asking. “I’m Jacob.”
She pressed the knife harder against my throat, her hand shaking. She was scared—which meant she was dangerous. “What were you doing in the house?” she demanded. “Why are you chasing me?”
“I just wanted to talk to you! Don’t kill me!”
She fixed me with a scowl. “Talk to me about what?”
“About the house—about the people who lived there.”
“Who sent you here?”
“My grandfather. His name was Abraham Portman.”
Her mouth fell open. “That’s a lie!” she cried, her eyes flashing. “You think I don’t know what you are? I wasn’t born yesterday! Open your eyes—let me see your eyes!”
“I am! They are!” I opened my eyes as wide as I could. She stood on tiptoes and stared into them, then stamped her foot and shouted, “No, your real eyes! Those fakes don’t fool me any more than your ridiculous lie about Abe!”
“It’s not a lie—and these are my eyes!” She was pushing so hard against my windpipe that it was difficult to breathe. I was glad the knife was dull or she surely would’ve cut me. “Look, I’m not whatever it is you think I am,” I croaked. “I can prove it!”
Her hand relaxed a little. “Then prove it, or I’ll water the grass with your blood!”
“I have something right here.” I reached into my jacket.
She leapt back and shouted at me to stop, raising her blade so that it hung quivering in the air just between my eyes.
“It’s only a letter! Calm down!”
She lowered the blade back to my throat, and I slowly drew Miss Peregrine’s letter and photo from my jacket, holding it for her to see. “The letter’s part of the reason I came here. My grandfather gave it to me. It’s from the Bird. That’s what you call your headmistress, isn’t it?”