I broke out in goosebumps, remembering the white-eyed neighbor I’d seen watering his overgrown lawn the night my grandfather was killed. “I think I’ve seen one. I thought he was just an old blind man.”
“Then you are more observant than most,” she said. “Wights are adept at passing unnoticed. They tend to adopt personas invisible to society: the gray-suited man on the train; the indigent begging for spare coins; just faces in the crowd. Though some have been known to risk exposure by placing themselves in more prominent positions—physicians, politicians, clergymen—in order to interact with a greater number of people, or to have some measure of power over them, so that they can more easily discover peculiars who might be hiding among common folk—as Abe was.”
Miss Peregrine reached for a photo album she’d brought from the house and began to flip through it. “These have been reproduced and distributed to peculiars everywhere, rather like wanted posters. Look here,” she said, pointing to a picture of two girls astride a fake reindeer, a chilling blank-eyed Santa Claus peeping out through its antlers. “This wight was discovered working in an American department store at Christmas. He was able to interact with a great many children in a remarkably short time—touching them, interrogating them—screening for signs of peculiarity.”
She turned the page to reveal a photo of a sadistic-looking dentist. “This wight worked as an oral surgeon. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the skull he’s posing with belonged to one of his peculiar victims.”
She flipped the page again, this time to a picture of a little girl cowering before a looming shadow. “This is Marcie. She left us thirty years ago to live with a common family in the countryside. I pleaded with her to stay, but she was determined. Not long after, she was snatched by a wight as she waited for the school bus. A camera was found at the scene with this undeveloped picture inside.”
“Who took it?”
“The wight himself. They are fond of dramatic gestures, and invariably leave behind some taunting memento.”
I studied the pictures, a small, familiar dread turning inside me.
When I couldn’t bear to look at the pictures anymore, I shut the album.
“I tell you all this because to know it is your birthright,” Miss Peregrine said, “but also because I need your help. You are the only one among us who can go outside the loop without arousing suspicion. So long as you’re with us, and you insist upon traveling back and forth, I need you to watch for new arrivals to the island and report them to me.”
“There was one just the other day,” I said, thinking of the birder who had upset my dad.
“Did you see his eyes?” she asked.
“Not really. It was dark, and he was wearing a big hat that hid part of his face.”
Miss Peregrine chewed her knuckle, her brow furrowing.
“Why? Do you think he could be one of them?”
“It’s impossible to be certain without seeing the eyes,” she said, “but the possibility that you were followed to the island concerns me very much.”
“What do you mean? By a wight?”
“Perhaps the very one you described seeing on the night of your grandfather’s death. It would explain why they chose to spare your life—so that you could lead them to an even richer prize: this place.”
“But how could they have known I was peculiar? I didn’t even know!”
“If they knew about your grandfather, you can be certain they knew about you, as well.”
I thought about all the chances they must’ve had to kill me. All the times I’d felt them nearby in the weeks after Grandpa Portman died. Had they been watching me? Waiting for me to do exactly what I did, and come here?
Feeling overwhelmed, I put my head down on my knees. “I don’t suppose you could let me have a sip of that wine,” I said.
All of the sudden I felt my chest clench up. “Will I ever be safe anywhere?” I asked her.
Miss Peregrine touched my shoulder. “You’re safe here,” she said. “And you may live with us as long as you like.”
I tried to speak, but all that came out was little stutters. “But I—I can’t—my parents.”
“They may love you,” she whispered, “but they’ll never understand.”
* * *
By the time I got back to town, the sun was casting its first long shadows across the streets, all-night drinkers were wheeling around lampposts on their reluctant journeys home, fishermen were trudging soberly to the harbor in great black boots, and my father was just beginning to stir from a heavy sleep. As he rolled out of his bed I was crawling into mine, pulling the covers over my sandy clothes only seconds before he opened the door to check on me.
I groaned and rolled away from him, and he went out. Late that afternoon I woke to find a sympathetic note and a packet of flu pills on the common room table. I smiled and felt briefly guilty for lying to him. Then I began to worry about him, out there wandering across the headlands with his binoculars and little notebook, possibly in the company of a sheep-murdering madman.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes and throwing on a rain jacket, I walked a circuit around the village and then around the nearby cliffs and beaches, hoping to see either my father or the strange ornithologist—and get a good look at his eyes—but I didn’t find either of them. It was nearing dusk when I finally gave up and returned to the Priest Hole, where I found my father at the bar, tipping back a beer with the regulars. Judging from the empty bottles around him, he’d been there a while.
I sat down next to him and asked if he’d seen the bearded birder. He said he hadn’t.
“Well, if you do,” I said, “do me a favor and keep your distance, okay?”
He looked at me strangely. “Why?”
“He just rubs me the wrong way. What if he’s some nutcase? What if he’s the one who killed those sheep?”
“Where do you get these bizarre ideas?”
I wanted to tell him. I wanted to explain everything, and for him to tell me he understood and offer some tidbit of parental advice. I wanted, in that moment, for everything to go back to the way it had been before we came here; before I ever found that letter from Miss Peregrine, back when I was just a sort-of-normal messed-up rich kid in the suburbs. Instead, I sat next to my dad for awhile and talked about nothing, and I tried to remember what my life had been like in that unfathomably distant era that was four weeks ago, or imagine what it might be like four weeks from now—but I couldn’t. Eventually we ran out of nothing to talk about, and I excused myself and went upstairs to be alone.