“Of course. Friends keep in touch.”
“Okay,” I said, relieved. At least we could—
And then she kissed me. A big, full-on-the-lips kiss that left my head spinning.
“I thought we were just friends!” I said, pulling back in surprise.
“Um, yes,” she said sheepishly. “Now we are. I just needed one to remember us by.”
We were both laughing, our hearts soaring and breaking at once.
“Children, stop that!” Miss Peregrine hissed.
“Frank,” my mother said faintly, “who is that girl Jake’s kissing?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea,” my father mumbled. “Jacob, who is that girl, and why are you kissing her?”
My cheeks flushed. “Um, this is my … friend. Emma. We’re just saying goodbye.”
Emma waved bashfully. “You won’t remember me, but … hello!”
“Well, stop kissing strange girls and come along,” said my mother.
“Okay,” I said to Miss Peregrine. “I’d guess we’d better get on with it.”
“Don’t think this is goodbye,” Miss Peregrine said. “You’re one of us now. You won’t get rid of us that easily.”
“I sure hope not,” I said, grinning despite a heavy heart.
“I’ll write you,” Emma said, trying to smile, her voice cracking. “Good luck with … whatever it is normal people do.”
“Goodbye, Emma. I’ll miss you.” It seemed so inadequate a thing to say, but at times like this, words themselves were inadequate.
Miss Peregrine turned to finish her work. She raised the falcon feather and tickled my parents under their noses.
“Excuse me!” my mother said, “what do you think you’re doooo-AAAAAA-CHOO!”
And then both she and my father had a sneezing fit, and while they were sneezing, Miss Peregrine tickled the police officer, and he had a sneezing fit, too. By the time they were all finished, noses running and red in the face, Miss Peregrine and Emma had whisked out the door and were gone.
“As I was saying,” my dad said, picking up as if the last few minutes hadn’t happened. “Wait … what was I saying?”
“That we could just go home and talk about all this later?” I said hopefully.
“Not before you answer some questions,” the officer said.
We spent a few minutes talking to the police. I kept my answers vague, laced every sentence with an apology, and swore up and down that I hadn’t been abducted, abused, or drugged. (Thanks to Miss Peregrine’s memory wipe, the officer had forgotten about making me take that drug test.) When my parents explained about my grandfather’s death and the “troubles” I’d suffered following it, the police seemed satisfied that I was just a garden-variety runaway who’d forgotten to take his meds. They made us sign a few forms and sent us on our way.
“Yes, yes, let’s please go home,” my mother said. “But we will talk about this, young man. In depth.”
Home. The word had become foreign to me. Some distant land I could hardly imagine.
“If we hurry,” said my dad, “we might be able to catch an evening flight …”
He had cemented his arm around my shoulder, as if afraid I’d run away the moment he let go. My mom couldn’t stop staring at me, her eyes wide and grateful, blinking back tears.
“I’m okay,” said, “I promise.”
I knew they didn’t believe me, and wouldn’t for a long while.
We went outside to hail a black cab. As one was pulling up, I saw two familiar faces watching me from a park across the street. Occupying the dappled shade of an oak were Emma and Miss Peregrine. I raised a hand goodbye, my chest aching.
“Jake?” My dad was holding the cab door open for me. “What’s the matter?”
I turned my wave into a head scratch. “Nothing, Dad.”
I got into the cab. My dad turned to stare into the park. When I looked out the window, all I saw under the oak were a bird and some blowing leaves.
* * *
My return home was neither triumphant nor easy. I had shattered my parents’ trust, and piecing it back together would be slow, painstaking work. Considered a flight risk, I was watched all the time. I went nowhere unsupervised, not even for walks around the block. A complicated security system was installed in the house, less to stop thieves from getting in than me sneaking out. I was rushed back into therapy, subjected to countless psychological evaluations, and prescribed new, stronger drugs (which I hid under my tongue and later spat out). But I’d endured far worse deprivations that summer, and if a temporary loss of freedom was the price I had to pay for the friends I’d made, the experiences I’d had, and the extraordinary life I now knew to be mine, it seemed a bargain. It was worth every awkward conversation with my parents, every lonely night spent dreaming about Emma and my peculiar friends, every visit to my new psychiatrist.
She was an unflappable older lady named Dr. Spanger, and I spent four mornings a week in the glow of her face-lifted permasmile. She questioned me incessantly about why I’d run away from the island and how I’d spent the days after, that smile never wavering. (Her eyes, for the record, were dishwater brown, pupils normal, no contacts.) The story I concocted was a temporary insanity plea sprinkled with a dash of memory loss, every bit of which was totally unverifiable. It went like this: frightened by what appeared to be a sheep-murdering maniac loose on Cairnholm, I cracked, stowed away on a boat to Wales, briefly forgot who I was, and hitchhiked to London. I slept in parks, spoke to no one, made no acquaintances, consumed no mood- or mind-altering substances, and wandered the city for several days in a disoriented fugue state. As for the phone call with my father in which I’d admitted to being “peculiar”—um, what phone call? I couldn’t remember any phone call …