It shouldn’t have surprised me that peculiar children have peculiar eating habits, but between forkfuls of food I found myself sneaking glances around the room. Olive the levitating girl had to be belted into a chair screwed to the floor so that she wouldn’t float up to the ceiling. So the rest of us wouldn’t be plagued by insects, Hugh, the boy who had bees living in his stomach, ate under a large mosquito net at a table for one in the corner. Claire, a doll-like girl with immaculate golden curls, sat next to Miss Peregrine but ate not a morsel.
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked her.
“Claire don’t eat with the rest of us,” Hugh volunteered, a bee escaping from his mouth. “She’s embarrassed.”
“I am not!” she said, glaring at him.
“Yeah? Then eat something!”
“No one here is embarrassed of their gift,” Miss Peregrine said. “Miss Densmore simply prefers to dine alone. Isn’t that right, Miss Densmore?”
The girl stared at the empty place before her, clearly wishing that all the attention would vanish.
“Claire has a backmouth,” explained Millard, who sat beside me now in a smoking jacket (and nothing else).
“Go on, show him!” someone said. Soon everyone at the table was pressuring Claire to eat something. And finally, just to shut them up, she did.
A leg of goose was set before her. She turned around in her chair, and gripping its arms she bent over backward, dipping the back of her head to the plate. I heard a distinct smacking sound, and when she lifted her head again a giant bite had disappeared from the goose leg. Beneath her golden hair was a set of sharp-toothed jaws. Suddenly, I understood the strange picture of Claire that I’d seen in Miss Peregrine’s album, to which the photographer had devoted two panels: one for her daintily pretty face and another for the curls that so thoroughly masked the back of her head.
Claire turned forward and crossed her arms, annoyed that she’d let herself be talked into such a humiliating demonstration. She sat in silence while the others peppered me with questions. After Miss Peregrine had dismissed a few more about my grandfather, the children turned to other subjects. They seemed especially interested in what life in the twenty-first century was like.
“What sort of flying motorcars do you have?” asked a pubescent boy named Horace, who wore a dark suit that made him look like an apprentice undertaker.
“None,” I said. “Not yet, anyway.”
“Have they built cities on the moon?” another boy asked hopefully.
“We left some garbage and a flag there in the sixties, but that’s about it.”
“Does Britain still rule the world?”
“Uh … not exactly.”
They seemed disappointed. Sensing an opportunity, Miss Peregrine said, “You see, children? The future isn’t so grand after all. Nothing wrong with the good old here and now!” I got the feeling this was something she often tried to impress upon them, with little success. But it got me wondering: Just how long had they been here, in the “good old here and now?”
“Do you mind if I ask how old you all are?” I said.
“I’m eighty-three,” said Horace.
Olive raised her hand excitedly. “I’ll be seventy-five and a half next week!” I wondered how they kept track of the months and years if the days never changed.
“I’m either one hundred seventeen or one hundred eighteen,” said a heavy-lidded boy named Enoch. He looked no more than thirteen. “I lived in another loop before this one,” he explained.
“I’m nearly eighty-seven,” said Millard with his mouth full of goose drippings, and as he spoke a half-chewed mass quavered in his invisible jaw for all to see. There were groans as people covered their eyes and looked away.
Then it was my turn. I was sixteen, I told them. I saw a few kids’ eyes widen. Olive laughed in surprise. It was strange to them that I should be so young, but what was strange to me was how young they seemed. I knew plenty of eighty-year-olds in Florida, and these kids acted nothing like them. It was as if the constance of their lives here, the unvarying days—this perpetual deathless summer—had arrested their emotions as well as their bodies, sealing them in their youth like Peter Pan and his Lost Boys.
A sudden boom sounded from outside, the second one this evening, but louder and closer than the first, rattling silverware and plates.
“Hurry up and finish, everyone!” Miss Peregrine sang out, and no sooner had she said it than another concussion jolted the house, throwing a framed picture off the wall behind me.
“What is that?” I said.
“It’s those damned Jerries again!” growled Olive, thumping her little fist on the table, clearly in imitation of some ill-tempered adult. Then I heard what sounded like a buzzer going off somewhere far away, and suddenly it occurred to me what was happening. This was the night of September third, 1940, and in a little while a bomb was going to fall from the sky and blow a giant hole in the house. The buzzer was an air-raid siren, sounding from the ridge.
“We have to get out of here,” I said, panic rising in my throat. “We have to go before the bomb hits!”
“He doesn’t know!” giggled Olive. “He thinks we’re going to die!”
“It’s only the changeover,” said Millard with a shrug of his smoking jacket. “No reason to get your knickers in a twist.”
“This happens every night?”
Miss Peregrine nodded. “Every single evening,” she said. Somehow, though, I was not reassured.
“May we go outside and show Jacob?” said Hugh.
“Yes, may we?” Claire begged, suddenly enthused after twenty minutes of sulking. “The changeover is ever so beautiful!”
Miss Peregrine demurred, pointing out that they hadn’t yet finished their dinners, but the children pleaded with her until she relented. “All right, so long as you all wear your masks,” she said.
The children burst out of their seats and ran from the room, leaving poor Olive behind until someone took pity and came to unbelt her from her chair. I ran after them through the house into the wood-paneled foyer, where they each grabbed something from a cabinet before bounding out the door. Miss Peregrine gave me one, too, and I stood turning it over in my hands. It looked like a sagging face of black rubber, with wide glass portholes like eyes that were frozen in shock, and a droopy snout that ended in a perforated canister.