Bronwyn flashed me a look of utter derision. “Then we’d never get to see him,” she said.
“That stings, mate,” said Enoch. “I only mentioned coming up here because I wanted you to have all the facts, like. I’m on your side.”
“Yeah? What are the facts, then? How did Victor die?”
Bronwyn looked up. “He got killed by an—owww!” she squealed as Enoch pinched the back of her arm.
“Hush!” he cried. “It ain’t for you to tell!”
“This is ridiculous!” I said. “If neither of you will tell me, I’ll just go ask Miss Peregrine.”
Enoch took a quick stride toward me, eyes wide. “Oh no, you mustn’t do that.”
“Yeah? Why mustn’t I?”
“The Bird don’t like us talking about Victor,” he said. “It’s why she wears black all the time, you know. Anyway, she can’t find out we been in here. She’ll hang us by our pinky toes!”
As if on cue, we heard the unmistakable sound of Miss Peregrine limping up the stairs. Bronwyn turned white and dashed past me out the door, but before Enoch could escape I blocked his path. “Out of the way!” he hissed.
“Tell me what happened to Victor!”
“Then tell me about Raid the Village.”
“I can’t tell you that, neither!” He tried to shove past me again, but when he realized he couldn’t, he gave up. “All right, just shut the door and I’ll whisper it to you!”
I closed it just as Miss Peregrine was reaching the landing. We stood with our ears pressed to the door for a moment, listening for a sign that we’d been spotted. The headmistress’s footsteps came halfway down the hall toward us, then stopped. Another door creaked open, then shut.
“She’s gone into her room,” Enoch whispered.
“So,” I said. “Raid the Village.”
Looking like he was sorry he’d brought it up, he motioned me away from the door. I followed, leaning down so he could whisper into my ear. “Like I said, it’s a game we play. It works just like the name says.”
“You mean you actually raid the village?”
“Smash it up, chase people round, take what we like, burn things down. It’s all a good laugh.”
“But that’s terrible!”
“We got to practice our skills somehow, don’t we? Case we ever need to defend ourselves. Otherwise we’d get rusty. Plus there’s rules. We ain’t allowed to kill anybody. Just scare ’em up a bit, like. And if someone does get hurt, well, they’re back right as rain the next day and don’t remember nothing about it.”
“Does Emma play, too?”
“Nah. She’s like you. Says it’s evil.”
“Well, it is.”
He rolled his eyes. “You two deserve each other.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He rose up to his full five-foot-four-inch height and poked a finger into my chest. “It means you better not get all high an’ mighty with me, mate. Because if we didn’t raid the damned village once in a while, most of this lot woulda gone off their heads ages ago.” He went to the door and put his hand on the knob and then turned back to face me. “And if you think we’re wicked, wait’ll you see them.”
“Them who? What the hell is everyone talking about?”
He held up one finger to shush me, then went out.
I was alone again. My eyes were drawn to the body on the bed. What happened to you, Victor?
Maybe he’d gone crazy and killed himself, I thought—gotten so sick of this cheerful but futureless eternity that he’d guzzled rat poison or taken a dive off a cliff. Or maybe it was them, those “other dangers” Miss Peregrine had alluded to.
I stepped into the hall and had just started toward the stairs when I heard Miss Peregrine’s voice behind a half-closed door. I dove into the nearest room, and stayed hidden until she’d limped past me and down the stairs. Then I noticed a pair of boots at the front of a crisply made bed—Emma’s boots. I was in her bedroom.
Along one wall was a chest of drawers and a mirror, on the other a writing desk with a chair tucked underneath. It was the room of a neat girl with nothing to hide, or so it seemed until I found a hatbox just inside the closet. It was tied up with string, and in grease pencil across the front was written
It was like waving red underwear at a bull. I sat down with the box in my lap and untied the string. It was packed with a hundred or more letters, all from my grandfather.
My heart picked up speed. This was exactly the kind of gold mine I’d hoped to find in the old ruined house. Sure, I felt bad about snooping, but if people here insisted on keeping things secret, well, I’d just have to find stuff out for myself.
I wanted to read them all but was afraid someone would walk in on me, so I thumbed through them quickly to get an overview. Many were dated from the early 1940s, during Grandpa Portman’s time in the army. A random sampling revealed them to be long and sappy, full of declarations of his love and awkward descriptions of Emma’s beauty in my grandfather’s then-broken English (“You are pretty like flower, have good smell also, may I pick?”). In one he’d enclosed a picture of himself posing atop a bomb with a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Over time, his letters grew shorter and less frequent. By the 1950s there was maybe one a year. The last was dated April 1963; inside the envelope was no letter, just a few pictures. Two were of Emma, snapshots she’d sent him that he’d sent back. The first was from early on—a jokey pose to answer his—of her peeling potatoes and pretending to smoke one of Miss Peregrine’s pipes. The next one was sadder, and I imagined she’d sent it after my grandfather had failed to write for a while. The last photo—the last thing he’d ever sent her, in fact—showed my grandfather at middle age, holding a little girl.
I had to stare at the last picture for a minute before I realized who the little girl was. It was my aunt Susie, maybe four years old then. After that, there were no more letters. I wondered how much longer Emma had continued writing to my grandfather without receiving a reply, and what he’d done with her letters. Thrown them out? Stashed them somewhere? Surely, it had to be one of those letters that my father and aunt had found as kids, that made them think their father was a liar and a cheat. How wrong they were.
I heard a throat clear behind me, and turned to see Emma glaring from the doorway. I scrambled to gather the letters, my face flushing, but it was too late. I was caught.