Jacob Portman has been listening to his grandfather’s wild stories all his life. Stories about girls who float and boys with bees in their stomach and monsters. Of course, he didn’t believe any of those stories until he finds his grandfather in the woods, dying, and sees a monster of his own. Grasping at the last words his grandfather says to him, Jacob and his father head to England to look into the place where his grandfather grew up during World War II. The truth? Perhaps those stories weren’t stories after all.
Full of old photographs, this book reminded me of a writing exercise I had to do once. As part of the exercise we were given a picture, I believe mine was a guy with a bleeding head. As we wrote you were supposed to insert the picture into your writing somehow. Many of the photographs in this book are real and strange and that’s what adds to the novelty of it, but even without the photos, the story is well-crafted and unpredictable.
The reader is brought along on a journey to discover a reality that is both strange and beautiful, constantly questioning what is normal and what will a person do in order to remain safe. I was a little thrown off by the language as Jacob never really felt sixteen to me and the children of the Home for Peculiar Children did not speak in the way that you would expect people from the 1940's and earlier to speak. This is of course a minor flaw in an otherwise gripping novel. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has a definite Peter Pan feel, complete with a flying child, but the bad guys are far more terrifying than Captain Hook.
* * *
Because I am feeling exceptionally friendly, I am also going to post two chapters of a novel I am working on, the one which was originally a writing assignment and had a guy with a bleeding head. It's a first draft of course, but I enjoyed the exercise so much that it has become a full fledged book. As of yet, it is untitled.
The antique pen lay on the teacher’s desk just waiting for someone to snatch it. With no sign of the teacher, Taya’s hand slipped across the cold metal and vanished the fountain pen into her pocket like a well-learned magic trick. As she did, Taya slid her homework into the middle of a stack of badly penned essays on the merits of a world government.
As she turned she caught a few of the other students peeking up at her, but one quick glare and they went back to writing, the dull pencils scratching away. No one dared mince on her, for Taya had a notorious right hook that had connected with more than a few jaws in this classroom. Max, the kid who she shared a desk with looked up at her through a disheveled mop of brown hair as she sat down. He winked at her before returning to his homework.
Taya didn’t risk looking to the back of the room, but she knew what she would see. A thin trickle of smoke eeking out from under the closet door. Smoking may be illegal down here in the Straights, but everyone around here did it, least a ways all the adults she knew. She moved the pen carefully down into a fold in her pants.
A pen like this could fetch a fair coin on the black market. Perhaps her brother could fence it for a blanket or a new jacket, or both. She felt the briefest twinge of guilt, but it didn’t last long. That’s what Miss Star got leaving something so valuable in a room full of twelve-year-old degenerates. Besides, Miss Star was a moody old mincer who only worked as a teacher to earn herself a berth on a space cruiser. Work twenty years for the government, you get paid yearly and eventually a ride out of this trash heap. Miss Star was on her sixteenth year. It showed.
With a quiet hiss the door slid open and Miss Star’s heels clacked on the concrete, trailing a cloud of smoke behind her. A few of the kids coughed as their teacher walked by, a small reminder that they always had something over on her. Taya peeked out from behind her hair, careful to not make eye contact.
Up front now, Miss Star straightened her skirt before sitting down. It took a single breath for the old bitty to notice something was amiss.
“All right, which one of you hoodlums took it?” she shouted, slamming her fists on her desk.
Even though she had been expecting it, Taya jumped. Miss Star looked at the essay on the top of the stack.
With a jerk, Jup, a frail boy with hair matted into dreadlocks rose to his feet. “Yes, Miss.”
“Where is my pen?”
“I don’t have it, Miss.”
“You were the last person to put their paper on my desk, right?”
Taya held her breath. Jup didn’t say anything else though.
“Well, if you weren’t the last one then who was?”
“I don’t know, Miss.”
“I don’t know, Miss,” Miss Star mocked.
In four steps Miss Star was across the room and with a sound like a thunderclap, her open palm connected with Jup’s small face, causing the boy to stumble backward into the desk behind him. Poor Jup recovered but not before sending a wandering eye her way. Miss Star didn’t miss that either. Turning, she looked right at Taya who was still holding her breath.
Looking into Miss Star’s cold face Taya imagined the worse. If she was caught she expected more than a slap. Miss Star had the reputation to mince on kids, having them hauled off by police never to be seen again. Rumor had it they sent you off planet, but no one knew where. More likely, they would drag her off to prison and her brother would have to pay a fortune to get her out.
Before Miss Star could open her mouth though, the school bell rang, releasing them from their prison. Taya darted for the exit but wasn’t faster than the teacher who was waiting in the doorway to frisk down the students as they passed, but Taya’s hiding spot was so good that the only thing Miss Moon found was a hole in Taya’s pocket.
“Dirty little bastards,” Miss Star shouted as they escaped.
Out on the street, Taya found Jup and handed him the apple from her lunch. It wasn’t much, but she knew, one had to take care of those who took care of you. Jup walked away rubbing his cheek and holding the apple close.
Taya’s stomach rumbled as she pulled her jacket tight around her and made her way out into the chill evening air. The twin suns of Armulus IV were just setting, casting the tin shacks and dirt streets in a pink and purple glow. The only time anyone would say the place looked nice.
"Hey, Taya, wait up."
Taya turned to see Max running up behind her. He stepped into pace with her.
"Pretty smooth nattering back there."
She shrugged but couldn't help but grin. "Nice fair, eh?"
Max nodded. They both walked toward the space dock. People scurried down the narrow streets most making their way to their destination as quick as they could. A man selling meat of unknown origin stood glaring at anyone who dared to pass without buying his wares. A few women stood around a door, bright scarves around their faces. Prostitutes. A girl close in age to Taya sat in front of the building, waggling her finger at strangers. Taya had always wondered, if she didn’t have a brother, would that be her?
“Madam Corona says this winter is going to be the worst in twenty years,” Max said beside her as he pushed his face down into his coat.
“No one needs that crazy psychic to know that.”
“Well, she was right wasn’t she?”
“Yeah, well Madam Corona also said that the world was going to be destroyed by a comet. Twice. And you see how right she was with that one.”
As they grew closer to the space docks, the air grew warmer, the very reason she took this route home. Rounding a corner, the docks came into full view. Giant searchlights danced through the air, pointing the way to the most coveted destination on the planet. Space.
The docks were full of ships. There were military ships, dark gray and ugly with huge side gun towers. War was always a constant, although Armulus IV had managed to stay almost neutral for over a decade. Almost meaning they weren’t afraid to shoot their own people if need be, but hadn’t fought with any of the neighboring systems. Even as she watched one of the ships took off, heading straight up before disappearing in the smog.
Off to one side were huge containers, stacked three and four high. Supplies for the transports and cruisers that left every few days. In the middle of the docks, lit by blue and green lights was the space cruiser. Once every four years the cruiser took off, taking anyone with enough money off planet. It was the only way ordinary people had any way of escaping this germ infested garbage heap of a planet.
“Kind of pretty ain’t it,” Max said beside her.
“Ridiculous waste of money if you ask me. Think of all the stuff we could do if we had the kind of money those people waste on a trip out of here. It may even be a decent place to live.”
“I don’t know,” Max said after a moment. “If I had that kind of money, I would probably leave too. Who wants to stay here?” He kicked a tin can into the canal as if to make his point.
“I don’t know, hell has a certain kind of charm don’t you think.”
“So the saying goes.”
They both stood silent, out of the way of the passers by. Taya knew her brother would be waiting for her, but she was loathe to return to her cold shack. Max’s stomach growled, Taya’s belly rumbled in comradery.
“Well, best be off. See if my old man drank away what little money we had.”
“Still drinkin’ eh?”
“Since mum died. At least Aunt Willa took in my little brother. That way only one of us will starve to death.”
“At least you have the government lunches from school,” she said sarcastically.
“Ha,” he laughed so loud two women stopped to look at them.
“Well, it’s been a stimulating conversation. Gotta run,” she said making off for home.
“There you go using big words again. You know I warned you about that.”
He laughed and waved goodbye.
Her house was another fifteen minute walk from the docks, near a dump and close to a butcher shop. She had no illusions, her home was smellier than most.
Escaping the biting wind that had started up, she rushed into the house, slamming the door as she did, making the little shack sway.
“Taya,” Lucas said, sitting at the table, “How many times do I have to tell you—”
“One of these days this house is going to fall down around us,” she finished for him.
Lucas looked up at her. His eyes were the same color as her, dark like night, secretive. Like their mother’s, at least that is what he said. She had never met the woman. Lucas was all she had. He was eight when she had been born. Their mother had died of some disease within months of her birth. Their dad left within the year. Her brother had taken care of her, fed her, stole for her, raised her.
Their little shack was one room with an old couch, a table with two stools, and a small bed that was hers. They also had a sink and a refrigerator, but there was no running water or electricity. Some places did have electricity but it was pointless seeing as it was only on about four hours of the day and they were never the same four hours you were home.
Lucas was sitting at the table writing something on a piece of paper with a pencil stub.
“Need a pen?” Taya asked taking out the antique pen and laying it on the table.
With a smirk, Lucas grabbed the pen and studied it. “And where did you get this young lady?”
“Does it matter?”
“What do you think we can get for it?”
“I’ll have to shop it around a bit. See what we have here. Looks like a proper 24th century gold tip, but I can’t be certain. Could be just a copycat.”
“Nice way to get my hopes up.”
“Truth. You know I like truth. Besides, this should raise your spirits.”
He shoved a black bag towards her. Gasping with delight, she pulled out a loaf of bread, still warm, garlic spread, a jar of olives, and a small package of sausage.
“A feast,” she cried. “How did you afford all this?”
He was quiet, focused on whatever he was writing on that piece of paper of his. Taya placed her hand on her hip, another gesture that Lucas said was like their mother.
“I wouldn’t have gambled if I wasn’t sure I could win. And the minute I had enough for dinner, I folded.”
Taya frowned at him. “What if you had lost it all? Then we wouldn’t have had anything to eat. That has happened before.”
“You know I wouldn’t let you starve, besides I have a deal coming up that will have us eating like this for a year.”
Taya had already loaded a slice of bread down with olives and garlic and sausage and was cramming the entire thing into her mouth in one bite. “Mmmm,” she mumbled around the bread.
“I’m afraid I have to go out for the evening. Do not stay up too late. Oh and Miss Comet asks that you help her out in the morning.”
Taya wrinkled her nose, but was too busy stuffing a second piece of bread into her mouth to answer.
Taya woke early the next morning. Lucas was still gone which wasn’t unusual for he often stayed out for a days at a time. She had more bread with the remaining olives and garlic spread on top. There was no more sausage.
She walked down two blocks to the community poor house, aka the bar, where the manager was gracious enough to give the local kids a free pint of water for washing, drinking, and other such uses. Never mind that he stole the water through a secret pipe he had built and the water was probably contaminated anyway. Taya never drank it, but she used her spare shirt to wash her face and underarms, before dunking the entire shirt and then taking it back home to dry.
Mrs. Comet was waiting in front of her shack when Taya arrived.
“What do we have this morning?” Taya asked, sidling up to the thin woman and grabbing a pair of spare gloves from a barrel beside Mrs. Comet.
“The usual dear. A couple of computers that need some tinkering. Remember, the wiring and chips are most important, but I have a new buyer who wants anything silicone. Apparently the price had doubled in the past month.”
With deft fingers, Taya tore apart the computer, exposing its innards, searching with a keen eye for parts that could be resold. For this she received ten VP chips, which could usually get her dinner for two days, three if she was careful. People walked past them on the street, but no one bothered them, illegal activities were the norm in the Straights and if there were coppers anywhere nearby they would have already been alerted. They worked well into the morning, stopping only to drink some mead and eat her last piece of bread. Well, it had been good while it lasted.
“Well, time for school,” Taya said, glancing up at the two suns.
“Don’t know why you bother,” Mrs. Comet said, handing over the money. “It will do none of you any good. You’ll just end up sitting here one day, sorting out wiring and hope you get enough to eat. Government fools trying to convince each other that they are doing a good job. If I could—”
Taya left Mrs. Comet to her ranting, which could go on for hours even without an audience.
Max met her at the gates looking rather sullen and with a new bruise under his right eye.
“Don’t tell me he is drinking and hitting now.” She grabbed his face with one hand to inspect the eye, which also had a small gash.
“Nah. Some guy on the way home tried to rob me. Joke was on him. I ain’t got no money. Don’t worry, my old man came out and beat him so bad that it’s a wonder he could see enough to run away.” Max smirked. “At least he’s good for something.”
Together they made their way into school. The little ones went to classes in the early morning, the kids Taya’s age went midafternoon, and the teens, if there were any, attended school at night. Taya actually liked school despite the teachers and Mrs. Comet was wrong, there were jobs for people who were smart. She could work at the spaceport or in one of the administrative offices. If she had to, she would even work for the government, even if it meant screwing other people over. Fend or yourself, take care of your family, those were the only rules in the Straights.
“Alright,” Miss Luna said entering the room. “Books open to page one hundred and four. Taya. Read.” So she hadn’t forgotten about yesterday.
Taya rose from her seat and began reading:
‘In the years following the great war, the Armulus system became one single government, calling themselves the Armulus Federation of Planets (AFP). The AFP was responsible for recreating infrastructure on nine habitable planets and moon in the system. Due to the immense cost of such an undertaking, the AFP began the Space Cruiser initiative, by which citizens could leave to go to other planets and a portion of the monies raised would then be put back into the AFP for restoration purposes. No government in the United Galaxies has ever undertaken such an immense project with positive results.’
Someone snickered in the back, but a sharp look from Miss Luna ended it. “Please continue Taya.”
‘Among the nine planets, Armulus IV is considered one of the wealthiest planets, with almost 70% of its population above the poverty line. It’s highways and majestic buildings are a popular tourist destination throughout the galaxy.’
A couple students coughed a few choice words.
“You may stop,” Miss Luna said.
Of course the books were propaganda, written for those who lived light years away and were wondering where they should go on their honeymoon. Try 70% of Armulus IV lived in abstract poverty. Possibly more. The resorts were off by a secluded beach with beautiful clean streets and shops. No one really lived there, it was only for the tourists, but anyone who came to the planet could easily ignore how bad things really were.
“Can anyone tell me what Armulus IV’s number one source of income is?”
“Bullshit,” someone called out.
Miss Moon shook her head as the students continued to call out various questionable moneymakers. Raising her eyebrow, the class grew quiet. “I can see no one is taking today’s lesson seriously. Please take out your pencils and write a two page essay on one of the benefits of the AFP.”
It’s not that Miss Moon believed this crunk any more than anyone else did, but her job was to teach whatever they told her to. After sixteen years though, Taya wondered if the teacher had begun to believe it.
* * *
Taya stopped at the butcher’s near the spaceport on the way home, getting a few strips of dried beef. A woman across the street was selling something green and Taya bought one, knowing she needed to eat vegetables whenever she was able, otherwise you got all kinds of weird diseases from a bad diet.
Slamming her way into the shack, Lucas said, “One of these days this shack is going to fall apart around us.”
He sounded strange though, quiet like. Lucas was lying on the couch, his hand clutching a towel to his head. The once blue towel was red.
“Our last towel,” she said stupidly.
His face was pale and drawn. “Some guys down at the Verina thought I had something I didn’t.”
“They beat you for something you didn’t have?”
“Oh, I have it. Just not on me.”
Taking the towel, she pulled back the towel to look at the wound. Her stomach lurched down into her toes. The gash went from the top of his head down to his right ear. There was a lot of blood, but worse, she thought she could see bone and maybe even brain.
“How does it look?” She looked at him with tears in her eyes. “That bad huh? Okay, take the emergency money stash and get a doctor. Jiles should be close. I hear he is working over at the mission this week.”
“I love you.”
Tears threatened to tumble over but she forced them back down. “I’ll be back before you can say Super Nova,” she shouted racing outside.
It took ten minutes to reach the mission using every short cut she knew. Jiles was there, a medic who had fought in the great war decades ago. He was old, but he was the best doctor around. She showed him the money first before dragging his protesting self down the street.
Flinging open the door, Taya nearly shoved Jiles inside. Lucas still lay on the couch, his hand having fallen away from the towel that was still stuck to his head. He wasn’t moving.
“He lost a lot of blood, but he’s going to be alright, right?”
Jiles knelt beside Lucas and placed his fingers on her brother’s neck. Slowly he stood, shaking his head. “I’m sorry child.”
Taya stood dumb, her eyes transfixed on her brother’s stomach, willing it to rise. Jiles pulled the towel away and inspected the wound. “It looks like they used an axe of some kind. It’s a wonder he got home. Would you like me to let the morticians know?”
She felt herself nodding, then she pulled out the money and offered it to him. “No, no. I didn’t do anything so no payment is needed. Some of us are still honest enough to not rob a grieving child.” He hesitated before placing a hand on her shoulder. “I am terribly sorry.”Then he left, leaving her alone in the cold shack.