“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be in here.”
“I’m bloody well aware of that,” she said, “but by all means, don’t let me interrupt your reading.” She stamped over to her chest of drawers, yanked one out, and threw it clattering to the floor. “While you’re at it, why don’t you have a look through my knickers, too!”
“I’m really, really sorry,” I repeated. “I never do things like this.”
“Oh, I shouldn’t wonder. Too busy peeping in ladies’ windows, I suppose!” She towered over me, shaking with anger, while I struggled to fit all the letters back into the box.
“There’s a system, you know. Just give them here, you’re mucking everything up!” She sat down and pushed me aside, emptying the box onto the floor and sorting the letters into piles with the speed of a postal worker. Thinking it best to shut my mouth, I watched meekly while she worked.
When she’d calmed a little, she said, “So you want to know about Abe and me, is that it? Because you could’ve just asked.”
“I didn’t want to pry.”
“Rather a moot point now, wouldn’t you say?”
“So? What is it you want to know?”
I thought about it. I wasn’t really sure where to start. “Just … what happened?”
“All right then, we’ll skip all the nice bits and go right to the end. It’s simple, really. He left. He said he loved me and promised to come back one day. But he never did.”
“But he had to go, didn’t he? To fight?”
“Had to? I don’t know. He said he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he sat out the war while his people were being hunted and killed. Said it was his duty. I suppose duty meant more to him than I did. Anyhow, I waited. I waited and worried through that whole bloody war, thinking every letter that came was a death notice. Then, when the war was finally over, he said he couldn’t possibly come back. Said he’d go stark raving. Said he’d learned how to defend himself in the army and he damn well didn’t need a nanny like the Bird to look after him anymore. He was going to America to make a home for us, and then he’d send for me. So I waited more. I waited so long that if I’d actually gone to be with him I would’ve been forty years old. By then he’d taken up with some commoner. And that, as they say, was that.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s an old story. I don’t drag it out much anymore.”
“You blame him for being stuck here,” I said.
She gave me a sharp look. “Who says I’m stuck?” Then she sighed. “No, I don’t blame him. Just miss him is all.”
She finished sorting the letters. “There you have it,” she said, clapping the lid on them. “The entire history of my love life in a dusty box in the closet.” She drew a deep breath and then shut her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. For a moment I could almost see the old woman hiding behind her smooth features. My grandfather had trampled her poor, pining heart, and the wound was still raw, even these many years later.
I thought of putting my arm around her, but something stopped me. Here was this beautiful, funny, fascinating girl who, miracle of miracles, really seemed to like me. But now I understood that it wasn’t me she liked. She was heartbroken for someone else, and I was merely a stand-in for my grandfather. That’s enough to give anyone pause, I don’t care how horny you are. I know guys who are grossed-out by the idea of dating a friend’s ex. By that standard, dating your grandfather’s ex would practically be incest.
The next thing I knew, Emma’s hand was on my arm. Then her head was on my shoulder, and I could feel her chin tracking slowly toward my face. This was kiss-me body language if there ever was such a thing. In a minute our faces would be level and I’d have to choose between locking lips or seriously offending her by pulling away, and I’d already offended her once. It’s not that I didn’t want to—more than anything I did—but the idea of kissing her two feet from a box of obsessively well-preserved love letters from my grandfather made me feel weird and nervous.
Then her cheek was against mine, and I knew it was now or never, so I said the first mood-killing thing that popped into my head.
“Is there something going on between you and Enoch?”
She pulled away instantly, looking at me like I’d suggested we dine on puppies. “What?! No! Where on earth did you get a twisted idea like that?”
“From him. He sounds kind of bitter when he talks about you, and I get the distinct impression he doesn’t want me around, like I’m horning in on his game or something.”
Her eyes kept getting wider. “First of all, he doesn’t have any ‘game’ to ‘horn in’ on, I can assure you of that. He’s a jealous fool and a liar.”
“Is he which?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Why? What kind of nonsense has he been spouting?”
“Emma, what happened to Victor?”
She looked shocked. Then, shaking her head, she muttered, “Damn that selfish boy.”
“There’s something no one here is telling me, and I want to know what it is.”
“I can’t,” she said.
“That’s all I’ve been hearing! I can’t talk about the future. You can’t talk about the past. Miss Peregrine has us all tied up in knots. My grandfather’s last wish was for me to come here and find out the truth. Doesn’t that mean anything?”
She took my hand and brought it into her lap and looked down at it. She seemed to be searching for the right words. “You’re right,” she said finally. “There is something.”
“Not here,” she whispered. “Tonight.”
We arranged to meet late that night, when my dad and Miss Peregrine would be asleep. Emma insisted it was the only way, because the walls had ears and it was impossible to slip off together during the day without arousing suspicion. To complete the illusion that we had nothing to hide, we spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out in the yard in full view of everyone, and when the sun began to set I walked back to the bog alone.
* * *
It was another rainy evening in the twenty-first century, and by the time I reached the pub I was thankful just to be somewhere dry. I found my dad alone, nursing a beer at a table, so I pulled up a chair and began fabricating stories about my day while toweling off my face with napkins. (Something I was beginning to discover about lying: The more I did it, the easier it got.)