The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I remembered something Grandpa Portman had said about a boy he’d known here in the children’s home—a boy with bees living inside him. Some would fly out every time he opened his mouth, he had said, but they never stung unless Hugh wanted them to.
I could think of only one explanation. My grandfather’s pictures had come from the trunk that lay smashed before me. I wasn’t certain, though, until I found a picture of the freaks: two masked ruffle-collared kids who seemed to be feeding each other a coil of ribbon. I didn’t know what they were supposed to be, exactly—besides fuel for nightmares; what were they, sadomasochistic ballerinas?—but there was no doubt in my mind that Grandpa Portman had a picture of these same two boys. I’d seen it in his cigar box just a few months ago.
It couldn’t have been a coincidence, which meant that the photos my grandfather had shown me—that he’d sworn were of children he’d known in this house—had really come from this house. But could that mean, despite the doubts I’d harbored even as an eight-year-old, that the pictures were genuine? What about the fantastic stories that went along with them? That any of them could be true—literally true—seemed unthinkable. And yet, standing there in dusty half-light in that dead house that seemed so alive with ghosts, I thought, maybe …
Suddenly there came a loud crash from somewhere in the house above me, and I startled so badly that all the pictures slipped from my hands.
It’s just the house settling, I told myself—or caving in! But as I bent down to gather the photos, the crash came again, and in an instant what meager light had shone through the hole in the floor faded away, and I found myself squatting in inky darkness.
I heard footsteps, and then voices. I strained to make out what they were saying, but I couldn’t. I didn’t dare move, afraid that the slightest motion would set off a noisy avalanche of debris all around me. I knew that my fear was irrational—it was probably just those dumb rapper kids pulling another prank—but my heart was beating a hundred miles an hour, and some deep animal instinct commanded me to be silent.
My legs began to go numb. As quietly as I could, I shifted my weight from one leg to the other to get the blood flowing again. A tiny piece of something came loose from the pile and rolled away, making a sound that seemed huge in the silence. The voices went quiet. Then a floorboard creaked right over my head and a little shower of plaster dust sprinkled down. Whoever was up there, they knew exactly where I was.
I held my breath.
Then, I heard a girl’s voice say softly, “Abe? Is that you?”
I thought I’d dreamed it. I waited for the girl to speak again, but for a long moment there was only the sound of rain banking off the roof, like a thousand fingers tapping way off somewhere. Then a lantern glowed to life above me, and I craned my neck to see a half dozen kids kneeling around the craggy jaws of broken floor, peering down.
I recognized them somehow, though I didn’t know where from. They seemed like faces from a half-remembered dream. Where had I seen them before—and how did they know my grandfather’s name?
Then it clicked. Their clothes, strange even for Wales. Their pale unsmiling faces. The pictures strewn before me, staring up at me just as the children stared down. Suddenly I understood.
I’d seen them in the photographs.
The girl who’d spoken stood up to get a better look at me. In her hands she held a flickering light, which wasn’t a lantern or a candle but seemed to be a ball of raw flame, attended by nothing more than her bare skin. I’d seen her picture not five minutes earlier, and in it she looked much the same as she did now, even cradling the same strange light between her hands.
I’m Jacob, I wanted to say. I’ve been looking for you. But my jaw had come unhinged, and all I could do was stare.
The girl’s expression soured. I was wretched looking, damp from rain and dust-covered and squatting in a mound of debris. Whatever she and the other children had been expecting to find inside this hole in the floor, I was not it.
A murmur passed among them, and they stood up and quickly scattered. Their sudden movement knocked something loose in me and I found my voice again and shouted for them to wait, but they were already pounding the floorboards toward the door. I tripped through the wreckage and stumbled blindly across the stinking basement to the stairs. But by the time I made it back to the ground floor, where the daylight they’d stolen had somehow returned, they had vanished from the house.
I bolted outside and down the crumbling brick steps into the grass, screaming, “Wait! Stop!” But they were gone. I scanned the yard, the woods, breathing hard, cursing myself.
Something snapped beyond the trees. I wheeled around to look and, through a screen of branches, caught a flash of blurred movement—the hem of a white dress. It was her. I crashed into the woods, sprinting after. She took off running down the path.
I hurdled fallen logs and ducked low branches, chasing her until my lungs burned. She kept trying to lose me, cutting from the path into the trackless forest and back. Finally the woods fell away and we broke into open bogland. I saw my chance. Now she had nowhere to hide—to catch her I had only to pour on the speed—and with me in sneakers and jeans and her in a dress it would be no contest. Just as I started to catch up, though, she made a sudden turn and plunged straight into the bog. I had no choice but to follow.
Running became impossible. The ground couldn’t be trusted: It kept giving way, tripping me into knee-deep bog holes that soaked my pants and sucked at my legs. The girl, though, seemed to know just where to step, and she pulled farther and farther away, finally disappearing into the mist so that I had only her footprints to follow.
After she’d lost me, I kept expecting her prints to veer back toward the path, but they plowed ever-deeper into the bog. Then the mist closed behind me and I couldn’t see the path anymore, and I began to wonder if I’d ever find my way out. I tried calling to her—My name is Jacob Portman! I’m Abe’s grandson! I won’t hurt you!—but the fog and the mud seemed to swallow my voice.
Her footprints led to a mound of stones. It looked like a big gray igloo, but it was a cairn—one of the Neolithic tombs after which Cairnholm was named.
The cairn was a little taller than me, long and narrow with a rectangular opening in one end, like a door, and it rose from the mud on a tussock of grass. Climbing out of the mire onto the relatively solid ground that ringed it, I saw that the opening was the entrance to a tunnel that burrowed deep inside. Intricate loops and spirals had been carved on either side, ancient hieroglyphs the meaning of which had been lost to the ages. Here lies bog boy, I thought. Or, more likely, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.