I pictured a person shriveling up and crumbling to dust like the apple on my nightstand. “That’s awful,” I said with a shudder.
“The few instances of it that I’ve had the misfortune to witness are among the worst memories of my life. And let me assure you, I’ve lived long enough to see some truly dreadful things.”
“Then it’s happened before.”
“To a young girl under my own care, regrettably, a number of years ago. Her name was Charlotte. It was the first and last time I ever took a trip to visit one of my sister ymbrynes. In that brief time Charlotte managed to evade the older children who were minding her and wander out of the loop. It was 1985 or ’86 at that time, I believe. Charlotte was roving blithely about the village by herself when she was discovered by a constable. When she couldn’t explain who she was or where she’d come from—not to his liking, anyhow—the poor girl was shipped off to a child welfare agency on the mainland. It was two days before I could reach her, and by that time she’d aged thirty-five years.”
“I think I’ve seen her picture,” I said. “A grown woman in little girl’s clothes.”
Miss Peregrine nodded somberly. “She never was the same after that. Not right in the head.”
“What happened to her?”
“She lives with Miss Nightjar now. Miss Nightjar and Miss Thrush take all the hard cases.”
“But it’s not as if they’re confined to the island, is it?” I asked. “Couldn’t they still leave now, from 1940?”
“Yes, and begin aging again, as normal. But to what end? To be caught up in a ferocious war? To encounter people who fear and misunderstand them? And there are other dangers as well. It’s best to stay here.”
“What other dangers?”
Her face clouded, as if she regretted having brought it up. “Nothing you need concern yourself with. Not yet, at least.”
With that she shooed me outside. I asked again what she meant by “other dangers,” but she shut the screen door in my face. “Enjoy the morning,” she chirped, forcing a smile. “Go find Miss Bloom, I’m sure she’s dying to see you.” And she disappeared into the house.
I wandered into the yard, wondering how I was supposed to get the image of that withered apple out of my head. Before long, though I did. It’s not that I forgot; it just stopped bothering me. It was the strangest thing.
Resuming my mission to find Emma, I learned from Hugh that she was on a supply run to the village, so I settled under a shade tree to wait. Within five minutes I was half-asleep in the grass, smiling like a dope, wondering serenely what might be on the menu for lunch. It was as if just being here had some kind of narcotic effect on me; like the loop itself was a drug—a mood enhancer and a sedative combined—and if I stayed too long, I’d never want to leave.
If that were true, I thought, it would explain a lot of things, like how people could live the same day over and over for decades without losing their minds. Yes, it was beautiful and life was good, but if every day were exactly alike and if the kids really couldn’t leave, as Miss Peregrine had said, then this place wasn’t just a heaven but a kind of prison, too. It was just so hypnotizingly pleasant that it might take a person years to notice, and by then it would be too late; leaving would be too dangerous.
So it’s not even a decision, really. You stay. It’s only later—years later—that you begin to wonder what might’ve happened if you hadn’t.
* * *
I must’ve dozed off, because around midmorning I awoke to something nudging my foot. I cracked an eye to discover a little humanoid figure trying to hide inside my shoe, but it had gotten tangled in the laces. It was stiff-limbed and awkward, half a hubcap tall, dressed in army fatigues. I watched it struggle to free itself for a moment and then go rigid, a wind-up toy on its last wind. I untied my shoe to extricate it and then turned it over, looking for the wind-up key, but I couldn’t find one. Up close it was a strange, crude-looking thing, its head a stump of rounded clay, its face a smeared thumbprint.
“Bring him here!” someone called from across the yard. A boy sat waving at me from a tree stump at the edge of the woods.
Lacking any pressing engagements, I picked up the clay soldier and walked over. Arranged around the boy was a whole menagerie of wind-up men, staggering around like damaged robots. As I drew near, the one in my hands jerked to life again, squirming as if he were trying to get away. I put it with the others and wiped shed clay on my pants.
“I’m Enoch,” the boy said. “You must be him.”
“I guess I am,” I replied.
“Sorry if he bothered you,” he said, herding the one I’d returned back to the others. “They get ideas, see. Ain’t properly trained yet. Only made ’em last week.” He spoke with a slight cockney accent. Cadaverous black circles ringed his eyes like a raccoon, and his overalls—the same ones he’d worn in pictures I’d seen—were streaked with clay and dirt. Except for his pudgy face, he might’ve been a chimney sweep out of Oliver Twist.
“You made these?” I asked, impressed. “How?”
“They’re homunculi,” he replied. “Sometimes I put doll heads on ’em, but this time I was in a hurry and didn’t bother.”
“What’s a homunculi?”
“More than one homunculus.” He said it like it was something any idiot would know. “Some people think its homunculuses, but I think that sounds daft, don’t you?”
The clay soldier I’d returned began wandering again. With his foot, Enoch nudged it back toward the group. They seemed to be going haywire, colliding with one another like excited atoms. “Fight, you nancies!” he commanded, which is when I realized they weren’t simply bumping into one another, but hitting and kicking. The errant clay man wasn’t interested in fighting, however, and when he began to totter away once more, Enoch snatched him up and snapped off his legs.
“That’s what happens to deserters in my army!” he cried, and tossed the crippled figure into the grass, where it writhed grotesquely as the others fell upon it.
“Do you treat all your toys that way?”
“Why?” he said. “Do you feel sorry for them?”
“I don’t know. Should I?”
“No. They wouldn’t be alive at all if it wasn’t for me.”