Never have I doubted my soundness of mind as often as I did on that first night, when the bird-woman and her wards came to save me from the madhouse. That’s where I was going, pinned between beefy uncles in the back seat of my parents’ car, when a wall of peculiar children seemed to leap directly from my imagination into the driveway before us, aglow in our high beams like a formation of angels.
We skidded to a stop. A wave of dust erased everything beyond our windshield. Had I conjured their echo, some flickering hologram projected from deep within my brain? Anything seemed more believable than my friends being here, now. Peculiars had a way of making anything seem possible, but a visit from them was one of the few impossibilities of which I could still be certain.
It had been my choice to leave Devil’s Acre. To go home again, where my friends couldn’t follow. I had hoped that in returning I might sew together the disparate threads of my life: the normal and the peculiar, the ordinary and the extraordinary.
Another impossibility. My grandfather had tried to sew his lives together too and failed, estranged in the end from both his peculiar family and his normal one. In refusing to choose one kind of life over the other, he had doomed himself to lose both—just as I was about to.
I looked up to see a figure moving toward us through the clearing dust.
“Who the hell are you?” my dad said.
“Alma LeFay Peregrine,” she replied, “Ymbryne Council leader pro tem and headmistress to these peculiar children. We’ve met before, though I don’t expect you’d remember. Children, say hello.”
It’s strange, what the mind can digest and what it resists. I had just survived the most surreal summer imaginable—skipping back to bygone centuries, taming invisible monsters, falling in love with my grandfather’s time-arrested ex-girlfriend—but only now, in the unexceptional present, in suburban Florida, in the house I’d grown up in, was I finding it hard to believe my eyes.
Here was Enoch, splayed upon our beige sectional, sipping Coke from my dad’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers tumbler; here was Olive, unstrapping her lead shoes to float ceilingward and ride circles on our fan; here were Horace and Hugh in our kitchen, Horace studying the photos on the fridge door while Hugh rustled for a snack; here was Claire, both mouths slack as she gazed at the great black monolith of our wall-mounted television; here was Millard, my mother’s decor magazines rising from the coffee table and splitting in midair as he skimmed them, the shape of his bare feet imprinted into our carpet. It was a mingling of worlds I’d imagined a thousand times but never dreamed possible. But here it was: my Before and After, colliding with the force of planets.
Millard had already tried to explain to me how it was possible they could be here, apparently safe and unafraid. The loop collapse that had nearly killed us all in Devil’s Acre had reset their internal clocks. He didn’t quite understand why, only that they were no longer in danger of sudden catastrophic aging if they stayed too long in the present. They would get older one day at a time, just like I did, their debt of years seemingly forgiven, as if they hadn’t spent most of the twentieth century reliving the same sunny day. It was undoubtedly a miracle—a breakthrough unprecedented in peculiar history—and yet how it had come to be was not half as amazing to me as the fact that they were here at all: that beside me stood Emma, lovely, strong Emma, her hand entwined with mine, her green eyes shining as they scanned the room in wonder. Emma, whom I’d so often dreamed about in the long, lonely weeks since my return home. She wore a sensible gray dress that fell below the knee, hard flat shoes she could run in if she had to, her sandy hair pulled back into a ponytail. Decades of being depended on had made her practical to the core, but neither the responsibility nor the weight of years she carried had managed to snuff the girlish spark that lit her so brightly from the inside. She was both hard and soft, sour and sweet, old and young. That she could contain so much was what I loved most about her. Her soul was bottomless.
She was talking to me. I tried to reply, but my head was mired in dreamy quicksand.
She waved at me, then snapped her fingers, her thumb sparking like struck flint. I startled and came back to myself.
“Hey,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Where’d you go?”
“I’m just—” I waved as if raking cobwebs from the air. “It’s good to see you, that’s all.” Completing a sentence felt like trying to gather a dozen balloons in my arms.
Her smile couldn’t mask a look of mild concern. “I know it must be awfully strange for you, all of us dropping in like this. I hope we didn’t shock you too badly.”
“No, no. Well, maybe a little.” I nodded at the room and everyone in it. Happy chaos accompanied our friends wherever they went. “You sure I’m not dreaming?”
“Are you sure I’m not?” She took my other hand and squeezed it, and her warmth and solidness seemed to lend the world some weight. “I can’t tell you how many times, over the years, I’ve pictured myself visiting this little town.”
For a moment I was confused, but then . . . of course. My grandfather. Abe had lived here since before my dad was born; I’d seen his Florida address on letters Emma had kept. Her gaze drifted as if she were lost in a memory, and I felt an unwelcome twinge of jealousy—then was embarrassed for it. She was entitled to her past, and had every right to feel as unmoored by the collision of our worlds as I did.
Miss Peregrine blew in like a tornado. She had taken off her traveling coat to reveal a striking jacket of green tweed and riding pants, as if she’d just arrived on horseback. She crossed the room tossing out orders. “Olive, come down from there! Enoch, remove your feet from the sofa!” She hooked a finger at me and nodded toward the kitchen. “Mr. Portman, there are matters which require your attention.”
Emma took my arm and accompanied me, for which I was grateful; the room had not quite stopped spinning.
“Off to snog each other already?” said Enoch. “We only just arrived!”
Emma’s free hand darted out to singe the top of his hair. Enoch recoiled and slapped at his smoking head, and the laugh that burst out of me seemed to clear some of the cobwebs from my head.
Yes, my friends were real and they were here. Not only that, Miss Peregrine had said they were going to stay awhile. Learn about the modern world a bit. Have a holiday, a well-earned respite from the squalor of Devil’s Acre—which, with their proud old house on Cairnholm gone, had become their temporary home. Of course they were welcome, and I was inexpressibly grateful to have them here. But how would this work, exactly? What about my parents and uncles, who at this very moment Bronwyn was guarding in the garage? It was too much to grapple with all at once, so for the moment I shoved it aside.
Miss Peregrine was talking to Hugh by the open fridge. They looked jarringly out of place amid the stainless steel and hard edges of my parents’ modern kitchen, like actors who had wandered onto the wrong movie set. Hugh was waving a package of plastic-wrapped string cheese.
“But there’s only strange food here, and I haven’t eaten for centuries!”
“Don’t exaggerate, Hugh.”
“I’m not. It’s 1886 in Devil’s Acre, and that’s where we had breakfast.”
Horace burst from our walk-in pantry. “I have completed my inventory and am frankly shocked. One sack of baking soda, one tin of sardines in salt, and one box of weevil-infested biscuit mix. Is the government rationing his food? Is there a war on?”
“We eat a lot of takeout,” I said, walking up beside him. “My parents don’t really cook.”
“Then why do they have this whomping great kitchen?” said Horace. “I may be an accomplished chef de cuisine, but I can’t make something from nothing.”
The truth was that my father had seen the kitchen in a design magazine and decided he had to have it. He tried to justify the cost by promising he would learn to cook and then throw legendary dinner parties for the family—but, like a lot of his plans, it fizzled after a few cooking lessons. So now they had this hugely expensive kitchen that was used mostly to cook frozen dinners and heat up day-old takeout. But rather than say any of that, I shrugged.
“Surely you won’t perish of hunger in the next five minutes,” Miss Peregrine said, and shooed both Horace and Hugh from the kitchen. “Now, then. You were looking a bit wobbly earlier, Mr. Portman. Are you feeling all right?”
“Better every minute,” I said, a bit embarrassed.
“You may be suffering from a touch of loop lag,” said Miss Peregrine. “Somewhat delayed in your case. It’s absolutely normal among time travelers, especially those who are new to it.” She was speaking to me over her shoulder as she moved through the kitchen, peeking inside each cabinet. “The symptoms are usually inconsequential, though not always. How long have you been feeling dizzy?”
“Only since you all got here. But really, I’m fine—”
“What about leaking ulcers, bunion clusters, or migraine headaches?”
“Sudden mental derangement?”
“Uh . . . not that I can remember?”
“Untreated loop lag is no laughing matter, Mr. Portman. People have died. Hey—biscuits!” She grabbed a box of cookies from a cabinet, shook one into her hand, and popped it into her mouth. “Snails in your feces?” she asked, chewing.
I choked back a snicker. “No.”
Emma recoiled. “You’re not serious!”
“It’s only happened once, that we know of,” said Miss Peregrine. She set the cookies down and fixed me with a stare. “The subject was male.”
“I’m not pregnant!” I said a little too loudly.
“And thank goodness for that!” someone shouted from the living room.
Miss Peregrine patted my shoulder. “It sounds as if you’re in the clear. Though I should have warned you.”
“It’s probably better you didn’t,” I said. It would have made me paranoid, not to mention that if I’d spent the last month sneaking pregnancy tests and checking my feces for snails, my parents would have long before banished me to an asylum.
“Fair enough,” said Miss Peregrine. “Now, before we can all relax and enjoy one another’s company, some business.” She began pacing a tight circle between the double ovens and the prep sink. “Item one: safety and security. I’ve scouted the perimeter of the house. All seems quiet, but appearances can be deceiving. Is there anything I should know about your neighbors?”
“Criminal histories? Violent tendencies? Firearm collections?”
We had only two neighbors: ancient Mrs. Melloroos, a wheelchair-bound octogenarian who only left her house with the help of a live-in nurse, and a German couple who spent most of the year elsewhere, leaving their Cape Cod–style McMansion empty except during the winter.
“Mrs. Melloroos can be kind of nosy,” I said. “But as long as no one’s being flagrantly peculiar in her front yard, I don’t think she’ll give us any trouble.”
“Noted,” said Miss Peregrine. “Item two: Have you felt the presence of any hollowgast since you returned home?”
I felt my blood pressure spike at her mention of the word, which had crossed neither my mind nor my lips in several weeks. “No,” I said quickly. “Why? Have there been more attacks?”
“No more attacks. No sign of them whatsoever. But that’s what worries me. Now, about your family—”
“Didn’t we kill or capture them all in Devil’s Acre?” I said, not ready to change the subject away from hollowgast so quickly.
“Not quite all. A small cadre escaped with some wights after our victory, and we believe they absconded to America. And while I doubt they’ll come anywhere near you—I daresay they’ve learned their lesson—I can only assume they’re planning something. An abundance of caution couldn’t hurt.”
“They’re terrified of you, Jacob,” Emma said proudly.
“They are?” I said.
“After the thrashing you gave them, they’d be stupid not to be,” said Millard, his voice ringing out from the edge of the kitchen.
“Polite persons do not spy on private conversations,” Miss Peregrine huffed.
“I wasn’t spying, I was hungry. Also, I’ve been sent to ask you not to hog Jacob. We came an awfully long way to see him, you know.”
“They missed Jacob a lot,” Emma said to Miss Peregrine. “Nearly as much as I did.”
“Perhaps it’s time you addressed everyone,” Miss Peregrine said to me. “Make a welcome speech. Lay out some ground rules.”
“Ground rules?” I said. “Like what?”
“They’re my wards, Mr. Portman, but this is your town and your time. I’ll need your help keeping everyone out of trouble.”
“Just be sure to feed them,” said Emma.
I turned to Miss Peregrine. “What were you saying before, about my family?”
They couldn’t stay prisoners in the garage forever, and I was getting anxious about how we were going to deal with them.
“You needn’t worry,” Miss Peregrine said. “Bronwyn has the situation well in hand.”
The words had hardly left her lips when a percussive, wall-rattling crash sounded from the direction of the garage. The vibrations sent glasses toppling from a nearby shelf to the floor, where they shattered.
“That sounds like a distinctly out-of-hand situation,” said Millard.
We were already running.