Authors: A. J. Hartley
“How do you know?” asked Rich, who looked unnerved by the whole thing.
“It just sort of stopped,” said Bobby, “and turned to face me. Looked at me. Then it started coming toward me.”
“And?” prompted Melissa.
“And I ran,” Bobby said, his eyes wide as if he were there again, seeing it all afresh. Sweat broke out on his face despite Hillside's frigid air conditioning. “I took off. Left my violin and got out of there. Didn't stop running till I got to the front lobby and waited there for my dad to pick me up.”
There was a respectful silence, but then Chip Whittley shrugged and grinned at Nathan. “Probably nothing,” he said. “A weird reflection off a car outside or something.”
“It wasn't a reflection,” said Bobby forcefully, his eyes flashing up and latching onto Chip's so that the other boy raised his hands in mock surrender.
“What do you think it was?” asked Genevieve gently.
At first, Bobby just shrugged, but then he swallowed and spoke. “It wasn't real clear, but I think it was a girl, and I
she was wearing a Hillside uniform.”
The Peregrine Mansion
or the rest
of the day, it seemed that the ghost of Hillside was all anyone could talk about. By lunchtime several students had performed Internet searches of local newspapers for articles about ghostly activity at the school or evidence of past tragedies involving its students, but nothing relevant had turned up. Rather than killing the debate, however, this merely seemed to fuel more speculation.
“Maybe she died when she was older, but her ghost wanted to return to when she was a schoolgirl,” Melissa suggested.
“Because her time at Hillside was the happiest in her life?” Alex said wryly. “I know I'd
want to stay here even after I'm dead.”
“Me too,” agreed Melissa, missing Alex's joke.
“Maybe she never got into the school and killed herself,” said Jennifer, “so her ghost wears the uniform she never got to wear in life.”
This was too much for Alex. “Maybe she's still waiting for her acceptance letter,” she said.
Melissa nodded thoughtfully.
“Man,” said Alex as soon as she was alone with Darwen and Rich. “These kids will do anything for a bit of drama.”
“You think Bobby is making it up?” asked Darwen. “He looked pretty rattled.”
“You're thinking it's something to do with Silbrica?” asked Rich.
Darwen shook his head. “Ghosts?” he said. “Doesn't sound right. Especially that bit about the uniform. Either it's just in his headÂ .Â .Â .”
“Or?” Rich prompted.
“I don't know,” said Darwen. “Maybe the school
haunted. Stranger things have turned out to be true about this place. One more thing to ask Mr. Peregrine when we find him.”
â¢Â â¢Â â¢
Eileen, when she arrived, was wearing oversized sunglasses that hid half her face, shorts, flip-flops, and a pink halter top with sequins on it. Her earbuds were, as ever, jammed in place, and she was chewing gum, occasionally blowing hard little bubbles and bursting them loudly. She didn't speak to Darwen, Rich, and Alex, but unlocked the car doors and sat there, waiting for them to get in.
“Could you take us to this address?” asked Darwen, avoiding the blank stare of her shades and drawing a slip of paper from his pocket.
“What?” said Eileen over the sound of her iPod.
Darwen tried again, but she still couldn't hear and yanked the earbuds out irritably.
“You really aren't supposed to have headphones on while you drive,” said Rich quietly.
Eileen shot him a look in the rearview mirror, and he turned quickly away.
“How can anybody go so red that fast?” Alex mused, grinning. “You look like a genetic experiment gone wrong: half man, half fire truck.”
Rich opened his mouth, presumably to explain how you couldn't cross a person with an emergency response vehicle, but caught Darwen's scowl and changed his mind.
“I said,” Darwen tried, pulling the conversation back to Eileen, “could you take us to this address?”
“Not a cab, you know,” said Eileen.
She stared at the paper, eventually snatching her sunglasses off to get a better look. Her eyes scanned the words Darwen had written out, and she looked suddenly very focused. Darwen was about to say something when the car lurched out into the surging Atlanta traffic in a blare of horns.
Ten heart-stopping minutes later, they were there.
“Well, that was bracing,” Rich remarked as they screeched to a halt.
“You getting out or what?” Eileen demanded.
Darwen slid awkwardly off the sticky seat and out into the hot Atlanta air. It wasn't even summer yet and it was already hitting ninety degrees, the kind of heat Darwen had barely been able to imagine in England.
Eileen did not speak, and the car pulled away the moment the door latched shut. Darwen watched her drive off, and it was a moment before he realized that the others were silently staring up at the house to which Eileen had brought them.
“This can't be right,” said Alex eventually.
“The address is correct,” Rich mused. He sounded dazed.
Darwen immediately understood their confusion. The house was huge: not so much a house, really, as a mansion, sprouting whimsical turrets with leaded windows and elegant, conical slate roofs. It had odd wings and crazy additions, such as a largely glass conservatory tacked on seemingly at random. The overgrown garden was surrounded by iron railings and contained massive sprawling trees and a dry fountain on the formal approach to the stately front porch. The paint was peeling and the whole place looked shabby and forgotten, but it was clearly worth a fortune, especially in this fashionable downtown district.
“You know what this lot alone is worth?” Rich mused.
“A couple million dollars,” Alex said. “Maybe more. You could build a condo complex on this ground and charge whatever you liked.”
Darwen couldn't think about money. His eyes traced the house's ancient timbers, its walls hung with sheets of ivy, its dark, enticing windows promising a labyrinth of passages and countless rooms all waiting to be discovered. Some of the upper windows had balconies and one little tower had a door that opened onto a railed walkway that wrapped all the way around the outside. It was, he thought, what houses should be, rambling and strange, but somehow homey and layered with age.
“Those trees,” Rich mused. “How old do you think they are? How old do you think the house is?”
Alex's brow creased, and for once, she was silent for a moment but gave Rich a significant look.
“Are you thinking what I'm thinking?” said Rich.
“PreâCivil War,” said Alex with a slow nod. “But it can't be.”
“What do you mean?” Darwen asked. “People lived here before the Civil War, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Rich. “But when the city fell to the Union armies, Sherman ordered it evacuated, then torched half the city. This house, in this location? It's impossible.”
“Then we'd better go inside and see what other impossible things it has to show us,” Alex reasoned.
They moved in silence up the broad, weedy driveway, skirting the dry fountainâDarwen had seen smaller swimming poolsâand into the shade of the mansion itself.
“Check out the watchtower,” said Darwen, gazing up at the turret with the railed balcony.
“They call that a widow's walk,” said Rich.
“Not sure I like the sound of that,” said Alex.
Slowly they climbed the steps to the porch with its screened veranda and paused over the spidery writing on the card above the bell push: Mr. Octavius Peregrine.
“I can't believe we didn't know this place existed,” Darwen whispered in wonder.
Rich tried the tarnished brass door handle and scowled when it wouldn't turn. “Don't suppose anyone has a key?” he said.
Darwen shook his head, but Alex stepped forward. “Let me try something,” she said, taking hold of the handle and turning it easily, so that the door shuddered slightly and swung open with a long, ominous creak.
“How did you do that?” Rich demanded.
“I'm a mirroculist too, remember?” she said, though she said it simply, apparently trying not to make Rich feel bad.
“So this is a portal?” he asked.
“I don't think so,” said Darwen, peering into the dim hallway with its threadbare Oriental rug and faded paintings on the walls. “Just a Silbrican locking mechanism. The house inside looks real enough.”
“One way to find out,” said Rich, bracing himself. Being careful not to touch the other twoâand thereby take advantage of their mirroculist powersâhe stepped cautiously through the doorway and into the house, paused to see if anything happened, then smiled and took a deep breath. “I guess we're in,” he said.
What they were in was far from clear. It was, as they had gathered, a very old and very large house, but it looked unlived in, and there were no obvious signs that Mr. Peregrine had spent any time there. The hallway led to an impressively spacious foyer and a broad staircase that branched into two and climbed up to a railed landing and corridors lined with doors. The foyer walls were interpersed with life-sized stone figures of women on plinths, their hands above their heads as if they were holding up the second story.
“Cool,” said Rich, inspecting them. “The ancient Greeks used these on their temples sometimes. They're called caryatids. They look like decoration, but they are actually structural, like pillars.”
Alex, who didn't need decoration to be structural, stood on her tiptoes so she could look the nearest caryatid in the face, then she stuck her tongue out at it. “They look like Miss Harvey,” she decided. “No fun at all.”
At first they picked their way cautiously around the first floor together, finding a formal dining room with a long, polished table, now layered with dust, then a huge kitchen complex hung with copper pans and riddled with chill, stone-flagged pantries with undersized doors. There was a circular library whose high shelves were stuffed with leather-bound books, and what they could only describe as a ballroom, vast, open, and hung with chandeliers. Upstairs they found bedroom after bedroom, though each one resembled a carefully maintained exhibit in a museum and showed no signs of recent habitation, so that after a while Darwen found that the edge to his search had dulled. Soon they took to wandering off by themselves, calling out what they stumbled upon.
“A music room!” yelled Alex, punctuating her announcement with a few plinky notes on an out-of-tune piano.
“Another bathroom!” returned Rich. “Even bigger than the last one!”
Darwen took a few more steps down a long hallway, opened another door, and peered cautiously in. The first thing he saw was an ancient rocking horse, then two stuffed bearsâone with an eye missingâand a wooden clown on wheels.
, he thought, then as his eye settled on the dusty crib at one end, he revised the term and called out, “Nursery.”
There was a long silence, but then he heard footsteps in the hall outside and Alex stepped in. “Did you sayâ?” she began, but her eyes drank in the room and she didn't need to finish the sentence.
Rich was at her heels.
“Mr. Peregrine had kids?” he asked.
Darwen shrugged, small and embarrassed. He didn't know. He hadn't asked.
“Man,” said Alex, picking up the wooden clown. It had a bright red, slightly chipped nose and staring glass eyes. “Who would give a kid this? Nightmare central, or what?”
Darwen shuddered as he considered it sideways, remembering the clown mask Greyling had adopted when they'd met in Costa Rica.
“I don't think this was his place,” said Alex. “I mean, he might have lived here, but it feels like one of those rentals where all the furniture is already there and they bill you if you leave cigarette burns in the armchairs when you leave.”
Rich gave her a questioning look.
“My mom used to smoke,” she explained, “and we had an apartment for a while when my parents first split up. It wasn't bad, but my mom was terrified of scratching the coffee table or whatever 'cause the landlord was always looking for reasons to charge us extra.”
“If this stuff was here when he moved in,” Darwen mused, “then either the house was empty for a long time or Mr. Peregrine is really old.”
“He is pretty wrinkly,” Alex agreed. “His hands look like one of those maps with the wiggly lines that show hills and such. What do you call them?”
“Contours,” said Rich.
“Right,” said Alex. “Contours. His hands are like that. Just the backs. Not the palms. The palms feel like paper when he touches you.”
And suddenly, she stopped, and the three of them, gazing at the curious room with its ancient toys, felt Mr. Peregrine's absence in ways they hadn't before, and a sadness passed among them.
“It's like we didn't know him at all,” Darwen said finally, staring at the empty crib. “He's gone, and we're trying to get him back, but all we've found so far is that we know nothing about him.”
“We've only been looking five minutes,” said Rich, taking a deliberately cheery tone. “There's tons of the house we haven't seen. Every room so far has been in the center.”
“How do you know that?” asked Alex.
“Simple,” said Rich, nodding at the walls of the nursery. “No windows.”
“Huh,” said Alex, turning on her heel and striding out and down the hallway.
Darwen heard her trying door handles, then closing them again, each time calling sharply, “Nope!” He and Rich went after her, Rich opening other doors as they went.
“I'm turned around,” Darwen admitted. “Which way is the front, the side we came in?”
Rich started to point decisively, but his face clouded, and he shrugged. They followed the corridor at a brisk walk. It turned sharply left, then right, and along the way, they passed three more rooms, including two tiny bedrooms and an ancient walk-in closet, but they saw no windows, and Darwen could tell that Rich was getting agitated.