“Can we have some privacy to change, please?” I said.
Sharon looked at Nim and shrugged. Nim’s hands flapped. “It wouldn’t be proper!”
“Ahh, they’re fine,” Sharon said, waving his hand. “No monkey business, all right?”
Emma turned beet red. “I wouldn’t have any idea what you mean.”
“Sure you wouldn’t.” He shooed Nim out of the room, then paused at the doorway. “I can trust you not to run away again?”
“Why would we?” I said. “We want to meet Mr. Bentham.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Emma said. “But why are you still here?”
“Mr. Bentham asked me to keep an eye on you.”
I wondered if that meant Sharon would stop us if we tried to leave.
“Must be a pretty big favor you owed him,” I said.
“Massive,” he replied. “I owe the man my life.” And bending himself nearly in half, he squeezed out into the hallway.
* * *
“You change clothes in there,” Emma said, nodding toward a small connecting bathroom. “I’ll change in here. And no peeking until I knock!”
“Okayyy,” I said, exaggerating my disappointment in order to hide it. While seeing Emma in her underwear was an undeniably appealing prospect, all the life-threatening peril we’d endured lately had put that part of my teenage brain into a kind of deep freeze. A few more serious kisses, though, and my baser instincts might start to reassert themselves.
I shut myself in the bathroom, all gleaming white tile and heavy iron fixtures, and leaned over the sink to examine myself in a silvered mirror.
I was a mess.
My face was puffy and crosshatched with angry pink lines, which were healing quickly but still there, reminders of every blow I’d suffered. My torso was a geography of bruises, painless but ugly. Blood was caked into the hard-to-clean folds of my ears. The sight of it made me dizzy, and I had to grip the sink to stay upright. I had a sudden nasty flashback: fists and feet thrashing at me, the ground rushing up.
No one had ever tried to kill me with bare hands before. That was something new, much different than being hunted by hollows, which ran on instinct. Different, too, than being shot at: bullets were a quick, impersonal way to kill. Using your hands, though—that took work. It required hate. It was a strange and sour thing to know that such hatred had been directed at me. That peculiars who didn’t even know my name had, in a moment of collective madness, hated me enough to try to beat out my life with their fists. I felt shamed by it, dehumanized somehow, though I couldn’t exactly understand why. It was something I’d have to reckon with, if one day I ever had the luxury of time to reckon with such things.
I turned on the tap to wash my face. The pipes shuddered and groaned, but after a big orchestral flourish, they produced only a hiccup of brown water. This Bentham fellow might’ve been rich, but no amount of luxury could cocoon him from the reality of the hellish place where he lived.
How had he ended up here?
More intriguing still: how did the man know, or know about, my grandfather? Surely that’s who Sharon had been referring to when he said Bentham was looking for an old man who could speak to hollows. Perhaps my grandfather had met Bentham during his war years, after he’d left Miss Peregrine’s house but before he’d come to America. It was a defining period of his life which he’d spoken about only rarely, and never in detail. Despite all I’d learned about my grandfather in the past few months, in many respects he remained a mystery to me. Now that he was gone, I thought sadly, perhaps it would always be so.
I put on the clothes Bentham had given me, a preppy-looking blue shirt and gray wool sweater combo with simple black pants. It all fit perfectly, as if they’d known I was coming. As I was slipping into a pair of brown leather oxford shoes, Emma knocked on the door.
“How’re you faring in there?”
I opened the door to a blast of yellow. Emma looked miserable in an enormous canary-colored dress with poufy sleeves and a hem that swam around her feet.
She sighed. “It was the lesser of many sartorial evils, I assure you.”
“You look like Big Bird,” I said, following her out of the bathroom, “and I look like Mr. Rogers. This Bentham is a cruel man.”
Both references were lost on her. Ignoring me, she crossed to the window and looked out.
“What’s good?” I said.
“This ledge. It’s the size of Cornwall, and there are handholds everywhere. Safer than a jungle gym.”
“And why would we care about the safety of the ledge?” I asked, joining her at the window.
“Because Sharon’s watching the hall, so obviously we can’t go out that way.”
Sometimes it seemed like Emma had whole conversations with me inside her head—ones I wasn’t privy to—and then she’d get frustrated that I was confused when she finally let me in on them. Her brain worked so quickly that once in a while it got ahead of itself.
“We can’t go anywhere,” I said. “We’ve got to meet Bentham.”
“And we will, but I’ll be hanged if I’m spending the next hour twiddling my thumbs in this room. Saintly Mr. Bentham is an exile living in Devil’s Acre, which means he’s likely a dangerous lowlife with a sordid past. I want to have a look ’round his house and see what we can find out. We’ll be back before anyone notices we’re gone. Word of honor.”
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