Cat understood that there were mythical creatures walking around. She had seen Gran fight a werewolf not even twenty-four hours ago. But she still couldn’t wipe the strange feeling as she followed Ms. Peregrine through the library.
She didn’t look like a vampire, Cat thought. Well, at least, her skin wasn’t super pale or sparkly, and her teeth didn’t look like fangs. But Cat couldn’t look too closely without being rude. She was already sure Ms. Peregrine knew she was watching her.
Cat tried to glance at the books around her as they walked through the classics section. They just looked like old books. There were no ancient-looking texts or artifacts tucked in the bookshelves. But then again, why would there be?
“Am I disappointing you?” Ms. Peregrine asked, turning to give Cat a friendly smile. “I’m afraid I’m pretty boring for your first encounter.”
“Not her first encounter,” Gran muttered.
Ms. Peregrine gave Gran a sharp look.
“I’m not disappointed,” Cat said quickly. “It’s just… you seem… normal.”
Ms. Peregrine chuckled as they reached the end of the bookshelves. She nodded to a door labeled “Study Room A.”
“Well, I certainly am, compared to them,” she said, opening the door. “Go ahead.”
Cat let Gran walk in first and followed on her heels. There were three other people (if they were people, Cat thought) seated around an old wooden table. One was an older woman with thick glasses and a stern-gaze. It was hard to guess her age, but Cat guessed around mid-forties. A man sat next to her, with a long, thin face and a bored look. He looked around the same age as the woman. The third was a girl who looked barely older than Cat. She was in an oversized sweatshirt, despite the heat outside, and had brown hair tied in a messy bun.
“Another guest for book club?” the man asked dryly. “Hope she likes conversations about the influence of Marxism on the character development.”
“It’s a really boring book club, dear,” the woman added. “I’m sure Ms. Peregrine would be fine with letting you run around the library while we all chat.”
“Calm down,” Gran said, hooking a chair with her cane and pulling it close to her. “She’s here for the same reason I am.”
“And why would she be?” the woman demanded.
The look on her face reminded Cat of a principal reprimanding a student. That look quickly faltered under Gran’s gaze, though.
“I’m sure there’s a reason you told her about us,” the woman added.
“Introductions are in order,” Ms. Peregrine said, sitting on Gran’s side and motioning for Cat to sit on the other side. “Cat, that’s Dr. Janet Austen, Dr. Mark Williams, and Anne Bell.”
Cat had a feeling she had heard all their names before, but she’d never met them before. She saw Gran give a knowing smile.
“Those aren’t your real names, are they?” Cat asked.
“We all chose new names when we entered the Project,” Ms. Peregrine explained with a smile. “Literary names, of course, since we’re—“
“Old,” Gran supplied.
“Classic,” Ms. Peregrine countered.
Gran shrugged, but she was still smiling, as if this was an old joke they shared.
“So, Janet Austen is Jane Austen,” Cat said slowly. “And…”
She really needed to read more. The girl across from her smiled.
“I chose Anne Bell because Acton Bell was Anne Bronte’s pen name when she first started writing,” she said. “Mark Williams is named after William Shakespeare and the fact that he’s been obsessed with spouting Marxism since it was created.”
“I have an interest in the concepts as a theory,” the man replied with a sniff.
“And, of course, Ms. Peregrine was a caretaker who relocated peculiars,” Ms. Peregrine added. “So, it was a naturally fitting name.”
“That’s not really a classic name, though,” Cat said.
The corners of Ms. Peregrine’s smile twitched. “I might have changed it after reading the novel,” she said. “What can I say? It was too good to pass on.”
Cat nodded and looked around. “So, you’re all vampires?” she asked.
“We don’t look it?” Anne said with a feigned gasp. “But the media portrays us so accurately.”
“Don’t,” Dr. Austen began.
“Get her started,” Dr. Williams added.
“The media is so harsh on vampire-kind,” Ms. Peregrine said with a huff. “I mean, pale skin and sharp fangs? Biting the neck non-consensually?”
“So, it’s not true?” Cat interrupted.
“The pale skin is due to a lack of sun… and blood,” Ms. Peregrine explained. “Of course, not everyone is white to begin with, so pale has various shades. Plus, the instant death under sunlight is just a lie. Sure, we burn easier, but so do freckled humans.”
Cat saw Anne slouch deeper in her chair, as if warning her that this was going to be a long vent.
“And the sharp teeth?” Ms. Peregrine added with a huff. “What, we just have two teeth biting into our chins at all times?” She laughed, but it sounded more derisive than humorous.
“How do you drink blood, then?” Cat asked. “Or… do you actually not drink that?”
“We don’t hunt and eat our prey raw with just our teeth,” Ms. Peregrine replied. “Our metabolism works differently, so we just need a blood bag every once in a while.”
“Doctor,” Dr. Austen said, raising her hand.
“Doctor,” Dr. Williams added, raising his hand.
“And there’s nurse Carroll, but he’s on call at the ER today,” Anne added.
“So, they steal blood bags?” Cat guessed.
“It’s not really stealing,” Dr. Williams said. “We just take the expired blood, or the rejected ones from blood drives.”
“The lowered oxygen levels of expired blood don’t affect us,” Dr. Austen added. “So, we use what humans can’t anymore.”
“Saving the Earth from all the blood trash,” Anne added dryly.
“I see,” Cat said slowly.
She had an image of them all pulling out a blood bag and straw and drinking it like a juice pouch. Maybe that’s why Hollywood went for the sharp fangs instead.
“But the worst part,” Ms. Peregrine said, “other than the blatant fetishization of us as primitive, wild, warm-blood seeking models…” She took a deep breath, as if trying to calm herself. “The worst is the implication that we turn people into vampires without consent. As if we’d give anyone this fate without asking for permission.”
“You ask permission?”
“Of course,” Ms. Peregrine replied. “You see? Fiction makes us seem like predators, forcing others to live this fate without choice.”
“There’s a brochure,” Anne said with a nod. “And a waiting period. Plus, a contract for you to sign along with the name of your mentor.”
“Oh,” Cat said. “That’s… a lot more organized than I thought.”
“You see? Because we’ve been misrepresented for centuries,” Ms. Peregrine said with another huff.
“I know you’re about to go on another rant,” Gran said, holding up a hand. “And I appreciate you telling Cat about vampires more. But we need to put a pin in this for later.”
“So we don’t overwhelm her?” Dr. Austen guessed.
“Because we didn’t come here for this,” Gran replied.
“Then why bring her to the Tennials?” Dr. Williams asked.
Anne groaned. “Please stop trying to make that a thing,” she said.
“Tennials?” Cat asked.
“Centennials, bicentennials, blah, blah, blah,” Anne replied.
“Like I said, you aren’t the first encounter for Cat,” Gran said. “She met someone else last night.”
She looked over at Ms. Peregrine. Cat wondered if they were having some sort of non-verbal conversation.
“I met a werewolf,” Cat said, wondering if she was supposed to be the one to say it.
“Oh yeah, how’s the good old mayor?” Dr. Williams asked. “I thought I saw him running around last night when I was taking a stroll.”
“Not running around,” Gran corrected. “Running away. From an old, silvery friend.”
The atmosphere seemed to change. Cat felt, rather than saw, everyone in the room tense up.
“You don’t mean—“
“It should have been,” Gran replied, giving both doctors a stern look. “Now, everyone in here, except Cat obviously, has been around the Portal for longer than I have.”
“There’s no way it could have opened on only one side,” Ms. Peregrine said with a shake of her head. “Even if he managed to gain access to a key over there… No, he’d need someone on this side to open it.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Gran said wryly. “But I needed someone to say it so I didn’t feel so crazy right now.”
“Did he come for you?” Ms. Peregrine asked.
“I hope so,” Gran replied. “I still owe him.”
“Anyway,” Gran interrupted. “Who would have the magic to open the door here?”
“Mermaids?” Dr. Austen suggested.
“They have no interest in land-walkers,” Anne said with a shake of her head.
“Selkies?” Dr. Williams suggested.
“They only help if someone has their coat,” Gran said. “So, someone on this side would have had to track one down, steal her coat, and then force her to open the Portal?”
“Also, we aren’t close to the ocean, so maybe we cross ocean-dwellers off the suspect list,” Ms. Peregrine suggested.
“Vampires?” Gran asked, giving Ms. Peregrine a pointed look.
It was like she was asking while already knowing the answer, Cat thought. Or like it was a way of begging Ms. Peregrine to say she had nothing to do with it.
“Vampires don’t have that kind of power,” Ms. Peregrine replied. “And if any vampire tried, I’d personally rip them apart myself.”
“No one who’s been dabbling in magic?” Gran continued with a raised brow.
It almost looked like Ms. Peregrine flushed, Cat thought. But her pale face didn’t seem to change color.
“None in the last few decades,” she replied.
“I think we’re all just beating around the bush,” Anne said. “There’s only one creature powerful enough to open the Portal and confident enough to let in the one creature Betty banished.”
“Fairies,” Ms. Peregrine said grimly.
“I was afraid of that,” Gran said.
Her facial expression told Cat she was more pissed off than afraid. Gran rose to her feet with a sigh.
“Well, I was going to pay one of them a visit soon anyway,” she said. “I guess this is two birds with one stone.”
“Throw the stone really hard,” Anne muttered with a small smile.
Gran nodded and motioned to the door. Cat took the hint and stood up.
“I’ll walk you out,” Ms. Peregrine suggested.
She strode in front of Cat and walked next to Gran. Cat suddenly felt a bit like a third wheel. Gran gave Ms. Peregrine a small smile.
“Betty,” Ms. Peregrine said with a sigh.
She almost sounded like Mom did, Cat thought, whenever they were about to repeat a conversation for the umpteenth time.
“Don’t even start,” she warned. “I thought I proved a long time ago that I can take care of myself.”
“But you don’t have to, Betty.”
“And you don’t have to worry about me, Jules,” Gran replied firmly. “Just keep an eye out. Let me know if you see any new faces around town.”
“You’ll be the first to know,” Ms. Peregrine said with a nod. “I’ll also get word out to other chapters in the state and have them on the lookout, in case he went somewhere else until the next full moon.”
Gran nodded. They were at the front door, but neither of them seemed too eager to open it. Cat glanced at the bookshelf, pretending to be suddenly interested in a birdwatching book. Being this close to Gran and Ms. Peregrine seemed invasive.
“Well, get home safe,” Ms. Peregrine said a little loudly. “If you two need me to walk you home—”
“No, I’m sure we can manage,” Gran replied quickly. “You should get back to your meeting. Come on, Cat.”
Cat put down the book and hurried after Gran.
They walked quietly most of the way home. Cat had a feeling Gran had a lot on her mind. And Cat was afraid if she asked more questions, Gran would give her more answers. She already had so much new information in her head that she thought she was going to explode.
The dinner at home was quiet too, and, before she knew it, Cat was getting ready for bed and realized Gran hadn’t said a single word since the library. She wondered if she should go check on her.
As if on cue, there was a knock on her door, and Gran peeked her head in.
“Not sleeping yet, dear?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Cat replied, sitting cross-legged on her bed.
Gran walked over and sat on the edge of her bed. “Long day, huh?” she guessed.
Gran nodded and fell silent again. Cat noticed something silver in her hands that she was toying with. She leaned over to look.
“Oh, this is for you,” Gran said, holding it up.
It was a silver pendant, and it looked just like the one on Gran’s neck, a curled tiger with a pearl where the eye should have been.
“I have one for you,” Gran said, handing it to Cat gingerly. “This is a pendant to help protect you.”
Cat looked at it and glanced at Gran suspiciously.
“What are the side effects?” she asked. “Is it going to make me forget everything? Or magically tie my tongue if I talk about anything non-human?”
Gran chuckled. “Nothing like that,” she promised. “I’ll even give you mine if you don’t trust this one. Though I guess I’ve made both pendants, so they’re equally trustworthy.”
Cat carefully took the necklace from Gran’s hand and examined it.
“How’d you make it?” she asked.
“Well, made is a strong word,” Gran confessed. “These have been in the family for generations, and we have quite a few of these for protection. I just added your name to the protection spell so it’d cover you.”
“What does it protect me from?” Cat asked.
She heard a howl and nearly fell off the bed. Gran put her hand on Cat’s shoulder and steadied her.
“It’s just the wind,” Gran said in a soothing tone. “I’ve checked the protection circle, and nothing can come in without our permission. Besides, it isn’t a full moon. The only thing we have to worry about is a couple of hungry coyotes.”
“How can you be so sure?” Cat asked, trying not to sound frightened. “That we’re safe here? What if there’s something with more powerful magic out there?”
Gran nodded to the mural on the wall.
“I painted that myself,” she said. “When Mare-Bear was little. The light changes with the time of day, and it will give off an obvious sign if danger is coming.”
“But Mom didn’t— Mom doesn’t— know about magic,” Cat said. “Or if she did, she never told me.”
“There was a lot of trauma when Mare-Bear was little,” Gran said slowly, her eyes clouding over. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she never remembered any magic growing up because she seemed to close her mind against anything magical after…”
Her voice trailed off and she looked into the distance. Then, she shook her head and smiled at Cat.
“You’d be surprised how much you don’t notice simply because you aren’t looking for it,” she said. “When we go into town tomorrow, keep your eyes open. Now that you know to look, you might find something special.”
“We’re going into town tomorrow?”
“To the store,” Gran replied. “There’s someone I need to find, and we have got to get more food. I’ll even let you pick it out and throw away anything suspicious looking in the kitchen.”
Cat tilted her head.
“It’s another apology,” Gran explained. “For, uh, the tea and such.”
“For roofying me?”
“If that’s what you want to call it,” Gran said with a sigh. “I know it’ll take a lot to get your trust back, so I’ll try my best.”
“That’s not just you trying to get my guard down so you can erase my memories, right?”
“So, you’re hyper-suspicious of everything that isn’t a cute boy?” Gran asked with a chuckle. “And no, I’m not planning on erasing your memory. With Silverfur on the loose and you intent on staying here, it’s best that you know as much as possible so you don’t end up hurt.”
“Our old friend from last night,” Gran replied.
“Kinda a boring name,” Cat said and then bit her lip.
She hadn’t meant to say that aloud.
“Well, he doesn’t get to have a cool name,” Gran replied, a shadow crossing her face. “Not when he’s in this world.”
Cat nodded slowly and looked at her pendant.
“So… you’re gonna train me?” Cat asked with a grin.
“I’m going to educate you,” Gran said firmly. “There is no training because you aren’t getting any job out of this. I don’t even understand why you’d want any part of this anyway.”
“Because my summer just got a hundred times more interesting,” Cat replied quickly. “And, I dunno, I’m just drawn to it I guess. I’m curious.”
Gran gave a tired smile.
“Curiosity is fine as long as you remember to use common sense,” Gran replied. “Don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation, and don’t assume anything about any non-human until I’ve taught you about them. None of those fictional works got them right, you know.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Cat replied, putting on her pendant. “So, why the tiger?”
“It’s our family symbol,” Gran replied. “From the very beginning, when our ancestors guarded the Eastern gates. There were old tales that the tiger’s tail would turn white when it turned 500 years old. So a tiger that was all white was an ancient and mythical being. It would only appear when there was peace throughout the world, and it was one of the original Symbols of the world.”
“And the pearl?”
“They were once believed to be created by the tears of mermaids or nymphs,” Gran replied with a smile. “Which is, of course, untrue. Any mermaid with the power to create would more likely create a storm instead of a pearl.”
“Are they… temperamental?”
“The ones I’ve met are,” Gran replied. “Rightly so, since their waters have had so much pollution and exploitation in the last centuries. Maybe the mermaids from long ago had the time to make pretty things, but the ones now are mostly focused on keeping their homes safe and free from land-walkers.”
Cat nodded slowly. She wondered how Gran had met mermaids in the first place, if they didn’t like “land-walkers” and Gran was obviously one. But Gran looked tired already.
“It’s a beautiful necklace,” she said instead, touching the pendant against her collarbone. “Thank you.”
“It’s not just for show,” Gran replied, giving Cat a serious look. “More creatures than you think have powers of influence. This protects you from that, as well as most curses and spells that can inconvenience you.”
“Will I really need that much protecting?”
“If you’re around me, and learning from me, yes,” Gran replied. “I’ve made many friends, several frenemies, and a couple of enemies. Like it or not, you’ve got a target on you now because of me.”
Cat tried to look unconcerned as she nodded slowly. Gran gave her hand an encouraging squeeze.
“It’s much harder being brave at night,” she said with a kind smile.
“I’m not quitting,” Cat replied.
“I know. It’s scary at first, and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that,” Gran said. “I’ll be here to protect you, too. And soon you’ll learn to fight as bravely in the night as the day.”
Gran stood up and stretched. “I’m thinking of getting breakfast out tomorrow,” she said. “What do you say to a pancake date before I go threaten some fairies?”
“Sounds… good, I think,” Cat replied. “Are the fairies going to try to hurt us?”
“Nah, not yet at least,” Gran replied with a smile. “I’ll see you in the morning, dear.”
She closed the door on her way out and left Cat alone. Cat glanced at the mural on the wall. It was dark, and she wondered if she should have asked Gran what the warning sign would be. Would Cat know it if she saw it? But, she hoped she would never have to see it.
Cat fell asleep watching the mural darken slowly.