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The Curious Investigations of Miranda McGee – Chapter Four – Part 2

Miranda’s front door was locked.

She chewed her lower lip. That could mean Dad was home, but she couldn’t tell because the garage door was closed.

Flickering TV light came through the living room curtains, but she couldn’t see inside. She could use the key hidden in a fake rock under the left bush beside the porch, but what if Dad was in there? It was probably better to sneak around back and go in through the kitchen. If dad was already home, maybe he’d assume she’d been in the backyard. She should have put out her spyglass.

She felt guilty. Was this like lying? Was it okay to do something your Dad told you not to do if you didn’t agree not to do it?

Mostly she felt worried about getting caught. She’d done a little research on sociopaths to check to see if Alice was one (she didn’t fit the profile.) Maybe Miranda should take the test herself. Maybe she didn’t feel guilty enough.

The back gate was latched, but she kept a notched popsicle stick nearby in the gravel to unlatch it. The kitchen light was off but fortunately the back door was unlocked. She opened it quickly, since it squeaked louder when moved slowly.

There was no sign of Alice. If Dad wasn’t home, Miranda could just sit on the couch and he’d assume she’d been there the whole time.

The hallway from the kitchen to the living room was dark, but the TV still chatted away. She jumped back when she saw someone, Alice with her back turned.

Miranda stuck her head around the corner again. At first it looked like Alice was standing and watching TV, like she was exercising or something. She raised her hand over Dad’s chair, her fist empty, but clutched tight as if it were around a knife. She brought her fist down hard on the back of the chair, bouncing her wrist off the cushion. She stepped back a bit, spread her feet a little wider and tried again. Like she was practicing the best way to stab someone. In the head.

Chapter 4 image

A loud surprised breath slipped out of Miranda and she put her hand over her mouth.

Alice turned, she looked out of breath, but she was smiling, calm as always. Her hand unclenched and fell to her side. “Miranda dear, where have you been?”

Miranda motioned at the chair. “What were you doing?”

Alice rubbed her wrist, still smiling. “Practicing.” Her fingers looked white from strain. “Are you hungry?”

Her demeanor was so casual that Miranda momentarily though she’d hallucinated the last minute.

Hungry? It was hard for Miranda to track conversations that changed directions quickly. Her brain flailed for a response. “What are you practicing?”

Alice looked back at the chair. She frowned, like she’d forgotten something. “My stroke.”

“Oh.”

She was still trying to think of something else to say when Alice said, “Miranda McGee, you’ve been out of the house for quite a while. Where have you been?”

The garage door rumbled behind Miranda and she stupidly looked behind her like she could see through the wall. “Uh.”

Shouldn’t she be accusing Alice? Pointing a finger? Calling the police?

The door from the garage opened. Miranda’s dad rarely called out when he came home, but she heard keys and and a plastic bag hit the counter. Dad grunted and Miranda thought of the popcorn, sitting unpopped in the air popper.

He walked around the corner out of the kitchen, and when he saw Miranda in the hall he looked confused. “Is Bill Nye on?”

The silence was palpable. Alice crossed her arms. “We’re discussing why Miranda was out so long.” The look on her face wasn’t angry or deceptive. It was like she was saying, “You scamp.”

Miranda took a breath. She wanted to yell, “She was practicing to stab someone, probably you!” But while she was putting the words together in her head, Dad flipped on the hall light. His face was tight and red. “Where were you?”

She tightened her fists like Alice had earlier. “I needed to ask Cindy something.” True.

“You went over to the Bauteils?” Dad’s face got redder. “I expressly forbid you from talking to them!”

She let go of the breath she’d been holding. Not actually true. His exact words had been that he didn’t want her to talk to them. Wanting wasn’t forbidding.

While she tried to think of a response, Alice walked around Dad’s chair and sat on the couch. Miranda watched her as an excuse to collect herself for a moment. Alice smoothed her skirt.

Miranda used her calmest voice. “Cindy needed to ask me something. I was only there for a little bit.”

Dad wouldn’t look at her. “What did we agree?”

“Al, it was only for a little while.” Alice had a very reasonable look on her face. It clashed in Miranda’s head with what she’d just seen Alice doing. She was practicing stabbing, right?

“Alice, not now.” Dad held up a hand. “Miranda, what did we agree?”

Miranda kicked her heal against the wall. “We didn’t agree! You said you wanted me to stay away from the Bautils!”

Dad turned on her. “That’s right, stay away from them!”

“I don’t even know why this is a big deal!” Her voice was getting higher and she could feel tears pressing against her eyes. So much of the past year, the whole of her life welled up. He wanted her to be normal and she just wasn’t. Nothing about them or their lives was normal, and it was worse that he wanted to both be normal and not have any friends. How was that normal?

She hadn’t noticed Alice get up, but suddenly she was between Dad and Miranda. “I think we’re all getting a little upset over nothing.”

Miranda froze. Alice had never tried to mediate between Miranda and Dad before. Even Dad looked surprised.

Dad wiped his hands over his eyes. “If you only understood. None of this is simple, Miranda.”

“You never tell me anything!” She almost never yelled, especially at her dad, but she was so frustrated and tired. She lowered her voice. “I know something is going on. I know it.”

Dad leaned against the wall. He rubbed his face. “Do you think I like this?”

He waved his hand at the room, almost at Alice. Alice looked as if she’d say something, but didn’t. Dad’s face was awash with guilt, which was scary. He often got the most angry when his was guilty.

Miranda looked at the floor. “Go to your room.”

“Fine!” She slammed up the stairs. “I hope she does stab you!”

Once in her room, she locked broom handle lock and pushed her rolling chair against the door. Which was stupid, it wouldn’t actually hold anyone out, but putting it there made her feel a tiny bit better. Once on the floor next to her bed, she started to regret yelling about Alice stabbing Dad.

Downstairs, Dad yelled and Alice replied calmly, then there were murmurs. What if Alice really was going to kill Dad?

Miranda couldn’t watch them all the time. She leaned under her bed, moved the spyglass out of the way and pulled out one of the many boxes under there. As she’d remembered, the second box from the wall was labeled “electronics.” She dug out the baby monitor she’d bought at the thrift store a month earlier.

It didn’t sound like Alice or Dad were coming upstairs yet. She moved the chair away from the door and listened. Dad wasn’t yelling anymore but she could hear him and Alice walking around the kitchen.

Her door squeaked as it opened, but the sounds downstairs continued. She sneaked quickly but softly across the hall, past the bathroom and into Dad and Alice’s room.

They had two twin beds, sort of like a husband and wife on a fifties TV show. The room was pretty bare otherwise, not even a dresser. Dad and Alice kept all their things in the walk-in closet. As long as she could remember, Dad packed light, as if he was always ready to pick up and leave.

There was one outlet by the headboard of Dad’s bed, closest to the door. The voices downstairs droned on. She got down on the carpet and quickly shimmied halfway under Dad’s bed. Once the transmitter was plugged into the outlet she could listen to make sure Alice didn’t try anything tonight. She paused before she turned it on. Hopefully Alice and Dad wouldn’t have sex. Ew.

A red light lit when she clicked it on. So far so good. Dust bunnies clung to her shirt as she pushed herself up. She’d left the receiver in her room, so she couldn’t test it. The house was silent.

She froze, listening for the stairway to creak. She didn’t even hear any noises from the kitchen anymore. There was a little red glow from under Dad’s bed, but hopefully they wouldn’t notice it when they turned on the light as they came in.

As she crossed the hall to her room, Alice’s voice drifted up. “Just sit and watch some TV, dear. Let me rub your shoulders.”

The Curious Investigations of Miranda McGee – Chapter Four – Part 1

Fortunately Mrs. Harris let her out of homeroom early and even walking, she beat the bus by thirty minutes.

She almost forgot to check the food for poison. Her head was brimming with Cindy. What was her mystery? Why couldn’t she just say what it was at school? Why did she have to be so infuriating?

Dad came home late and almost immediately got mad at her for correcting his pronunciation of the Pre Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

She hid in her room for an hour. When she came down, Dad was in the living room, setting up the TV. He had out their science notebooks. Monday night was traditionally family science night. She and Dad would watch four PBS programs in a row: NOVA, History Detectives, reruns of Bill Nye the science guy and then NOVA again. Miranda wasn’t sure how she’d get to check in with Cindy.

Cookie smell came in from the kitchen. She’d have to check those later too. She sighed. Dad looked up at her from the living room. He smiled sadly, like he was about to apologize.

Instead he said, “Ready for Bill Nye?”

She shrugged. Dad hadn’t mentioned their fight the night before. Even with his getting mad earlier, things generally felt more relaxed. She’d still have to talk to him about school at some point, but maybe another day. She tried to smile back.

Dad looked hurt, but he went back to futzing with the TV. He always unhooked the antenna after science night. They didn’t watch a lot of television.

She wished she had Cindy’s number, but she didn’t have a cell phone to call her anyway. Hopefully Cindy only needed a few minutes to fill in Miranda on her assignment.

Dad looked up at her again. More and more she was feeling like she was lying to him, even if it was by omission. She thought about just asking. What harm was there in talking to Cindy for a few minutes?

“Miranda, you going to make popcorn?”

She was so distracted she didn’t understand the question at first. “Oh, right, sure.”

Dad smiled, not even sadly, just a smile, which was nice, he rarely did lately.

In the kitchen, Alice was standing in front of the refrigerator. Miranda dug out the air popper and still Alice didn’t move from the refrigerator door.

“You okay, Alice?”

Alice turned slowly. Looked at Miranda like she didn’t know her. “Who?”

Then her face cleared and she smiled. “Sorry, what?”

“Are you feeling okay?” Miranda put the air popper on the counter. The popcorn was in a high cabinet and she had to stretch to get it.

“Call me Mother, dear.” She turned and called to Dad. “Hon, I need you to go to the drug store.”

Dad yelled from the living room. “What?”

He came into the kitchen and waved his hand back at the living room. “It’s almost science time.”

Alice put her hands on her hips, mock mad. “You forgot to get my special things earlier and I still need them.” Miranda was pretty sure ‘special things’ meant menstrual products, Alice didn’t seem to need birth control.

Ugh, why’d she even think about that?

Dad looked back at the living room again. He looked back and sighed. “Fine.” He grabbed his keys from the bowl by the door. “Miranda, I’ll be back in time for Bill Nye.”

Almost as a reflex she said, “Don’t rush. Test your brakes before you leave the block.”

He paused, looked back and then shook his head. “Okay.”

Outside, the garage door rumbled up and the car pulled out. As the garage door rumbled back down, she left the air popper on the counter, filled and ready to go, but not plugged in yet.

It took her long to realize the opportunity she’d just gotten. She said, “Alice. I need to run outside. Just for a minute!”

Alice was back looking at the refrigerator. “Okay, dear.”

The great thing about Alice was she never asked any questions.

#

It took three knocks before Tom-Dad answered the door. Time was short and Miranda was already feeling antsy. “Is Cindy home?”

“Sure!” Tom-Dad looked a little like Bill-Dad, not enough to be related, but like they were from the same racial stock… maybe? Though Miranda couldn’t put her finger on what race. Tom-Dad had darker hair and he was a little shorter and older. She made a mental note to look up racial characteristics. At one point she’d thought they were all brothers, but after observation she concluded one of them looked a little Asian and another looked part black.

Person of color, she corrected herself.

No one else seemed to be home. Even after observing them for a week, she was never clear on what the Bauteils did with their day. Tom-Dad was looking at her expectantly, so she said, “Did you say something?”

He nodded, “I said Cindy’s in her room.” He swept his hand across the small living room to the door closest to the front door.

The house was tiny. Miranda realized it only had the one bedroom. The kitchen was off to the left, just an open space designated by dirty yellow linoleum and waist-high cabinets. The walls didn’t have any art. Miranda made a mental note. The only real feature of Bauteils’ living room was a flat screen TV with a large modular couch arranged around it. It looked like they had cable. She felt a little jealous.

There was a big empty space behind the kitchen with nothing in it, just the glass sliding door on the back wall showing their tiny backyard. Of the two other doors, one must go to the attached garage and the other was probably the bathroom. It was hard to imagine how six people lived in such a small house. Where did everyone sleep?

She was just about to knock on Cindy’s door when she realized what she’d just seen in the corner behind the couch. Unless her eyes were playing tricks on her, it was the same gold cage she’d seen Cindy holding yesterday. She squinted in the dim light. Just peeking over the bottom edge of the cage were bird heads, maybe three or four.

She worried she was pausing too long again. “Where are the rest of the Bauteil … men?”
Tom glanced at cage. “Sleeping.”

It seemed like a joke, Miranda watched his face to see if he’d smile. He yawned.

Knocking on Cindy’s door made it swing open, even as Cindy yelled, “Come in!”

It was a surprisingly big room. Cindy sat on her bed, pushed against the wall underneath the lone window, just like Miranda had theorized. There must have been at least twelve feet of empty floor space from the edge of the bed to the dresser. Miranda also noted that the bed had a unicorn bedspread. She felt only a tiny bit smug.

“Bedtime in fifteen, hon.” Tom-Dad’s voice was muffled by the half-closed door.

Cindy yelled again, “Okay, Dad!” To Miranda she whispered, “Close the door.”

Miranda shut the door slowly so it wouldn’t make a loud noise and maybe offend Tom-Dad. Though maybe not all dads were as touchy as hers. That brought up an interesting point. If Cindy called them all “Dad,” didn’t it get confusing?

Cindy hopped off the bed and pulled a tiny stool from next to her dresser to the center of the room. It made a loud scraping noise as she pulled it. Miranda wondered why she didn’t just pick it up.

Miranda parked herself on the stool as Cindy hopped back up on the bed. It was so low it made kind of an inefficient seat. It probably would be more comfortable to just sit on the floor, but Cindy had gone to all the effort and Miranda didn’t want to be impolite.

Cindy looked furtively at the door, leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I don’t have a mom.”

Miranda leaned back away from Cindy. The stool was so low that she almost toppled off. It seemed like she should say something, maybe something consoling, but she couldn’t think of anything.

Cindy said, “I have five dads.”

“Duh.”

Miranda grabbed her mouth. It had just slipped out.

Cindy didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t think other people have five dads.” She looked more confused than upset. “And no mom.”

Miranda leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees. She’d seen an interviewer do it on TV and hoped it looked thoughtful. “Not that I’ve observed, no.”

“Exactly.” Cindy shrugged. “So I want you to investigate me and my dads.”

Miranda felt a weird mix of emotions. Elated, her first real investigation! And one one that she’d already started working on!

Then she just felt confused. Where would she even start on an investigation like this? It didn’t make any sense. It probably broke the laws of physics.

Still, there was a sensible answer to everything. She just needed to look at it the right way.

Like Dad always said, “Apply logic.”

She tried to think of a perfect first question. It was important to start things on the right tone.

To buy time, she looked around the room, trying to look thoughtful. Cindy had a vintage wood dresser and an equally ornate desk covered with with at least four brushes and five teddy bears, maybe one from each dad? Miranda wanted to get up and study the pictures on the walls, but she thought she should ask some questions.

The best she could muster was, “Do you know where you were born?” She wished she’d brought her notebook. “Do you have a birth certificate?”

Cindy looked at the ceiling and crinkled her brow in a way that was kind of endearing. She opened her mouth to answer, but then Miranda remembered. “Hey, what did you want to show me?”

“Oh, right!” Cindy hopped off the bed again and flopped onto the floor. Miranda wondered how she kept her dresses so nice, the way she threw herself around. Cindy pressed her cheek against the bed and stretched her arm underneath. “It’s here. I pushed it too far against the wall.”

Miranda felt a little silly for feeling kinship around the fact that Cindy hid things under her bed as well.

Cindy slid back from the bed holding a stained manila folder. “This is the weird part.”

In Miranda’s opinion, it was all the weird part, but she took the envelope.

Cindy knelt down next to her as Miranda opened the folder. “My dads don’t keep very good files. There just a few of these stuffed in a drawer in the kitchen.

There were a few receipts from the grocery store, an invoice from the auto repair shop, the lease on the house.

“Your dads need an organizational system.”

Cindy’s brow furrowed. “Look at the dates on all this stuff.”

Miranda dug through the pack. There was a copy of Cindy’s school admission. “What am I looking for?”

“None of it is older than two months.”

“Well, maybe your dads don’t hold on to their paperwork. You said it’s all disorganized.”

“But I’ve been through all the paperwork in the house. There’s nothing older than a few months.”

“Maybe your dads didn’t bring their old receipts before you moved to town.”

Cindy looked a little haunted. “I don’t really remember much from before we moved here.” She pointed at the bed. “We bought that in town. And the dresser. And the kitchen stuff. I can’t think of anything we actually brought to town, except the car.”

Miranda patted her shoulder. “I’m sure there’s some explanation.”

“All my clothes are from here.”

“Just let me look through these papers.”

Cindy pulled a picture from underneath the pile. “This is us in the backyard.”

The picture was in daylight. There was Cindy in the middle of all five dads. Each dad had his right arm on the shoulder of the dad next to him. They each beamed like they each felt more proud than the next.

She was just about to ask the names of the two dad’s she didn’t know when Cindy pointed at the gold cage, sitting on the lawn near them. “That bird cage is exactly two months old.”

The cage! “That reminds me. I need to ask you –“

The doorknob clicked and Cindy snatched the folder from her. As the door opened she slid it under the bed.

Tom-Dad leaned in. “That’s fifteen minutes, darling.”

Fifteen minutes. If Miranda’s dad was home already, she’d be completely busted. Anyway, Cindy gave her a look that said stop talking.

Miranda stood up. “Guess I should get home.”

Tom-Dad smiled and left.

Miranda got up to go, but turned at the door. “Did you … Did I see your dad turn …”

Cindy leaned back on the bed. She nodded. “I guess that’s not normal either.”

The Curious Investigations of Miranda McGee – Chapter Three – Part 4

“You shouldn’t have passed me a note.” Miranda clutched her books to her chest and rushed down the hall. She was so mad she couldn’t even look at Cindy.

Cindy had to jog to keep up. “I wasn’t trying to get you in trouble.” She kept opening and closing her book as she walked, like it was talking. “It’s just that you usually dash out of class so quickly at the end of math.” Other kids looked at Cindy like she was crazy, but Cindy just kept on with the book.

Miranda had to swap books and get to Reading Comprehension, then Chemistry. She tried to ignore Cindy.

“Have lunch with me!”

Wasn’t Cindy going to be late for Biology? She didn’t seem worried about it.

“I need to check in with the office before lunch to see if anyone needs tutoring help.” She turned to go to Reading Comp.

Cindy said, “Awww … no one shows up for that anyway.”

Miranda felt offended, but it was true. She hadn’t tutored anyone in a month. She just sat in the office for fifteen minutes feeling hungry and then gave up and got the dregs of hot lunch.

She was just about to say, “I have to go” and run off, but… really there was never anyone there. She did always end up last in line for hot lunch.

Still, Cindy had gotten her in trouble. “Passing notes is against the rules.” Not trouble exactly, but for the entire rest of the class she’d felt embarrassed.

Cindy closed the book with a snap. “Let’s grab food together. I want to ask you something.”

Miranda hadn’t realized they shared lunch period. She made a mental note to update her Cindy-tracking schedule. She’d have to correct what she’d told Bill-Dad.

“The lunch room is loud.” That was part of the reason Miranda skipped it sometimes.

Cindy’s head cocked, like she’d just remembered something. “I’ll show you my secret eating spot.”

Secret eating spot? It was true that Miranda had never seen Cindy at lunch.

Before Miranda could say anything, Cindy yelled, “It’s a date!” And ran off.

Now Miranda was late for class. Cindy couldn’t be worth all this trouble.

#

Lunch was sloppy joes, green beans and hash browns, each a pile in one of her tray’s three little pits.

Showing up on time for lunch didn’t improve it much.

Miranda followed Cindy out the north exit from the cafeteria. Cindy’s “secret eating spot” turned out to be a small square alcove just outside the door. It looked for all the world like there’d been an elevator in the spot that had been torn out and a floor and walls had been added. Not that that made any sense. The school didn’t have a second floor.

The linoleum had the same weathered look as the rest of the hall and the drop ceiling was grey from age, but there were no overhead lights in the space. The indented area was darker than made sense, given the lights in the hall.

Three park benches sat inside, the metal and wood kind. They faced each other, one against each wall. Cindy sat down on one and put her tray on her knees, so Miranda sat across from her, the bench looked brand new.

“I don’t remember seeing this before.” Miranda touched the wall, as if it’d turn out to be a prop on a set.

Cindy shrugged. “I only noticed it a week ago when Penny Mosley tripped me and I fell in here. It’s practically invisible from the hallway.”

As if to illustrate this, a lumbering senior passed. Miranda and Cindy fell silent till his footsteps receded.

Cindy mashed together all the food on her tray, till it was a gross mess across all of the tray compartments. Miranda felt a little sick just looking at it.

Cindy looked down at the mess. “So, I heard you’re a detective?”

Miranda blushed and looked at her own food. No one was supposed to know that! Sure, she’d let a few things slip to other kids when she’d been a little too proud or obvious in her observations. Though even though they’d asked, they always got bored after a sentence or two.

“Not a detective.” More like an investigator. “I just pay attention.”

Cindy put a plastic forkful of the horrible mash in her mouth and spoke before she’d fully chewed it. “But you can … solve mysteries, right?”

Miranda felt herself blushing. A good investigator didn’t get taken in by compliments. She made clean little channels with her plastic fork so the beans, sloppy Joe and hash browns didn’t touch. “I’ve … yes. I’m quite talented at deduction.” Maybe sometimes investigators did like compliments. Anyways, she was just stating a fact.

“I have a mystery for you to solve!” Cindy waved her arms in excitement. Her food wobbled dangerously on her knees. “You should come by my house tonight!”

Miranda poked at her food some more to give herself a second to think.

A case! And from the girl she was already investigating!

Then she sighed. She didn’t have time to pursue distractions. She had to leave last period a little early as it was to beat Dad home and test Alice’s food.

Cindy just sat there, eating. She didn’t look impatient, just waiting. Maybe she meditated too. She was the least stressed person Miranda had ever met.

She should just say no.

“What’s your mystery?” She said instead.

Cindy’s face lit up, then she looked doubtful. “I can’t tell you, I need to show you.”

Cindy stared into Miranda’s eyes with such intensity that Miranda wanted to look away. Instead she just blinked a couple times. She’d read somewhere that professionals maintained good eye contact. Cindy looked hopeful.

The easiest thing would be to say she couldn’t and leave it at that. She needed to be thinking about Alice’s schedule for the rest of the week anyway.

Cindy said, “It won’t take long, just a few minutes.”

Miranda pushed her green beans around. “Maybe I can stop by after dinner tonight.”

Cindy jumped up, as if to hug Miranda. Her tray launched forward and sloppy joe mess fell on Miranda’s shoes. “Yay! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” She didn’t seem to notice the spilled food.

Miranda shook her shoe. Red glop fell to the floor. “Maybe. I’ll have to ask my dad.”

The Curious Investigations of Miranda McGee – Chapter Three – Part 3

Ugh, people. She didn’t understand other teenagers. Other fourteen year-olds seemed to do nothing but fight and gossip and drown in hormones. They were like aliens. Horny aliens. Guys had even started to notice Miranda, which is why she’d started wearing baggy t-shirts.

Miranda dodged around Penny Mosley walking hand in hand with one of the football players.

Then she had to slow down so Cindy didn’t notice. It was relatively easy to observe and follow Cindy, since they had Algebra One together.

Miranda really wished she was in college Calculus instead. Dad was helping her with it at home, but said she had to hold back at school. How was she supposed to pretend to be normal when he was teaching her all these things? Why was it so important to fit in anyway?

She’d tried for the first month, she really had. She made sure to get one or two questions wrong on each assignment. She had the best scores in class, but just barely. Maybe she should have varied her mistakes or something because Mr. Hanson somehow noticed.

At first she’d denied that she was bored, but she panicked and the whole thing came flooding out. He’d let her run off to her next class, but on Monday she found a probability and statistics book in her desk. After class he said, “Keep turning in the Algebra homework, and I’ll grade whatever work you do in the college books too.”

She still made one wrong answer on each test, but now she incremented the question number, question one on the first test, question two on the next, etcetera. Sometimes she tried to leave a puzzle for Mr. Hanson in her wrong answer. She sometimes caught him grinning while grading tests.

When she got her learners permit, she could drive to Southwest Virginia Community College. If she got all her electives out of the way in the next two years, she could go to state school and then grad school when she was seventeen.

Not that Dad would let her.

The five-till bell rang. Miranda followed Cindy to Mr. Hanson’s door. Cindy missed the two girls who waved at her as she went into class. One of the girls rolled her eyes. Miranda almost apologized to them on Cindy’s behalf. Neither waved at Miranda.

As usual, Mr. Hanson’s class was in pre-lesson chaos. Her plan to sit right behind Cindy and observe her for (supposedly) magical behavior was foiled by two cheerleaders and two football players pairing up and taking the back row. She slipped around a freshman girl to the door to go in. Maybe she could get the last seat behind Cindy to the left. Someone touched her arm. “Miranda.”
Mr. Hanson stood just outside the door. He gently took the freshman by the arm and walked her out of the way. He was always doing stuff like that, moving the students around like they were invalids. “Miranda, can we talk a minute?”

She tried to be discreet, glancing back into the room. Cindy was sitting in her usual seat. One seat behind her was still open. “But … class.”

He waved it away. “We still have a few minutes. Walk with me.”

She glanced back again and sighed. Mr. Hanson was already a few steps ahead of her. She ran to catch up.

He gave a look at a football player with his face locked against a cheerleader’s, but Mr. Hanson didn’t say anything. He glanced over at Miranda. “I wanted to see if you’d gotten your parents’ consent about taking college courses next year.”

She didn’t saying anything for a moment, but he wanted an answer and they’d have to go back to class soon. “Not exactly.”

Mr. Hanson waved at Principle Wodzinski who was scratching his bald spot and talking to Mr. Brown, the janitor. Mr. Brown looked like he just wanted to be left alone to fix a drinking fountain. Mr. Hanson’s smile dropped. “I know your dad has concerns, maybe if you asked your mom to–“

“Alice isn’t my mom.” That came out harder than she intended.

Mr. Hanson rubbed the back of his neck. Something he often did when he was on the spot. “Oh, I’m sorry.” The skin under the hair on his neck was red. “We better head back.”

They got to the door of the class without saying anything else, but before Miranda went in, he said, “We’ll make it work, Miranda. Don’t worry.”

Class was almost full. The only available seat was dead center, two rows in front of Cindy.

#

Miranda kept herself from turning around and looking at Cindy. Well, at least after the first two times.

Both times Cindy had been looking right at her! Miranda was still blushing. What was Cindy thinking? Did she know Miranda was watching her?

Mr. Hanson told them to read the section on multiplying fractions, which Miranda had already looked over last night. She took a deep breath and tried to do one of Dad’s relaxation exercises. She wished she could feel as at ease as Cindy looked. It wasn’t as if Cindy was good at math. It wasn’t even that other kids never made fun of her. She just didn’t seem to mind.

Cindy twirled her hair around a pencil while she read. Usually within ten minutes she had it completely tangled in there. Kids called her “Pencil,” because they weren’t clever enough to think of a nickname like “Tangles” or “Hair Extensions.”

Miranda sometimes wanted to smack the thing out of Cindy’s hand. Other times she wanted to sit patiently and work the metal pencil end out without tearing too much of Cindy’s hair.

One of the football lunkheads said, “Pencil” and chuckled, like he just come up with something clever and original. As usual, Cindy didn’t notice. Miranda used to think Cindy was good at ingratiating herself to teachers, but really it was that she never made trouble. Miranda herself was actually popular with teachers, but that was because she worked so hard and tried to make the best of all her school time.

Not that all teachers liked her. She’d been devastated when Mrs. Dover had suggested Miranda “chill out a little.” She suggested Miranda get a hobby. Miranda hadn’t spoken in class for a week after that. She didn’t want to admit Mrs. Dover might be right, but Cindy moved in shortly after that and Miranda took up investigating her as a hobby.

Something hit the back of Miranda’s neck. She felt for the wet of a spit-wad but her neck was dry. She scanned the floor for an eraser or a pen cap, but the only thing down on the floor was a tightly folded note.

Passing notes was against the rules. She’d learned not to tattle, that drew a lot of attention, so she just ignored the note. Someone made a noise behind her. When she looked back, Cindy winked.

Mr. Hanson still faced the board. Miranda felt a little guilty, but she leaned over and grabbed it. Mr. Hanson kept writing on the board, talking about matching divisors. Miranda opened the note on her desk.

Before she even registered the words she noticed Cindy’s tight precise script. Much neater than hers.

Let’s do lunch together, Miranda McGee!

“Is that a note, Miranda?” Mr. Hanson must have turned around the second she’d opened the note. He looked honestly surprised, like it’d never occurred to him that Miranda was capable of doing anything wrong. Everyone in class was looking at her. A few kids giggled.

“It’s… it’s…”

Mr. Hanson waved his hands, like “whatever” and turned back to the board. Miranda could feel her cheeks burning. Something hit the back of her neck, but she was pretty sure this time it was a spit-wad.

The Curious Investigations of Miranda McGee – Chapter Three – Part 2

In the movies or on TV, school always came off as exciting and/or sadistic. Bullies were blatant and outwardly evil and the teachers always turned a blind eye to the suffering of the smaller kids.

Miranda’s experience was that kids were much more subtle at torturing each other, everyone felt insecure and the teachers were just really busy.

The front doors of Union High School looked like Victorian church doors, complete with stained glass (underneath protective glass and steel mesh.) Two stone lions sat on either side of the concrete stairs. Some quick internet research revealed they’d originally been installed in front of the Dillwyn town hall, a richer town twenty miles west. Some farmers had stolen the lions thirty years ago, each on a separate weekend. Apparently no one had bothered to take them back. Now they added some class to the school.

Cindy waved at Miranda and ran off. Miranda didn’t even get a chance to wave back. She went up the stairs to the school, slipping past two arguing seniors. The front doors were propped open, which was good because they were heavy and warped. Just inside the door vice-principle Brook did her usual nodding at everyone, as if to say, “There is an official presence here.”

No one knew Brook’s first name. She gave Miranda the thumbs up, which Miranda assumed was a sort of hello, since she couldn’t think of any other reason to do it. Miranda waved in return.

The High School halls were worn. The wall cracks were painted over but still lingered beneath the grey paint. The red linoleum had faded to pink-salmon and was cracked in patterns that looked like retinal veins. The lockers had so many coats of paint they stuck shut, especially in the summer.

Miranda usually didn’t talk to anyone when she entered the school, making a beeline for her locker while staring determinately at the floor.

Kids weren’t as bad out in the halls, where teachers could catch them. It was easy to tattle when they hit you or took your stuff. It was much harder to prove mean words.

Still, she kept to herself, waved at a few people so as not to be too insulated. Insulated wasn’t ‘normal’ and kids who didn’t talk to anyone attracted more attention than the loud ones. Dad once said, “Act like people like you and they will.”

Miranda kept a map of the school in her head with likely locations of key people. Principle Wodzinski would be in the teachers’ lounge. Mr. Hanson would be sneaking a cigarette back by the track.

Her locker was on a small side hallway, but fortunately close to the main strip. She didn’t want to be down at the dark dead end. Bobby Hanson’s was way down at the end. He flinched whenever anyone turned in his direction. Maybe Dad was right. If she acted more like Bobby, she’d really be a pariah. She wished she could teach Bobby her equation for responding to questions and jokes. Just smile and repeat back the last half of what they said. Then people generally left her alone.

Cindy wasn’t quite the social pariah that Miranda was, but other kids talked about her behind her back, for all she noticed.

She couldn’t figure out what anyone wanted from each other. No one ever said what they meant, even the teachers. Everything was caged in sarcastic language. Miranda wasn’t good with sarcasm.

Her locker stuck, but she pressed her foot against the edge and pried it open. She fitted her books on the wooden shelf she’d built for the bottom of her locker. The fake cardboard wall made a dull hollow sound. She smiled.

She’d smuggled it in, piece by piece after painting it to match the rest of the locker. She’d never thought of anything to hide behind it, but it was fun knowing it was there.

First class was History, just down the hall. Then she could swing back past the locker for her mathematics book. When she thought about History class, an annoying part of her head added, “without Cindy.” She already found herself thinking of the next time she’d see her. Annoying.

The walk to class was uneventful, and her favorite seat was empty. She sat in the front, having decided best visual access to the board was a reasonable trade-in for people throwing stuff in her hair.

Aught was even worst than the last town in California. The kids here were suspicious of anyone with an IQ over 110.

It wasn’t like Miranda wanted to show anyone up, she just needed good scores to get into college. When she’d tried to explain that to Suzanne Wilkens, Suzanne said, “You don’t need a 4.0 to get into college.” Which was beside the point, really. Mr. Hanson had offered that with Miranda’s grades, she could go to college early. She worried that Dad would find the card from the college. She should have put it in her secret drawer.

But all that work made her the class uber-nerd. It wasn’t her fault she had good genes.

Her desk had a new carving. A little heart with “HI!” carved in the center. She frowned.

Mr. Walter was fun, and liked Miranda, but he ran his class like a circus. Each lesson was sort of an event. That was fun, but Miranda sometimes worried about Mr. Walter’s historical accuracy.

The shades were down and Mr. Walter was playing with a projector in the back of the classroom. Miranda double-checked the schedule in her head to make sure she hadn’t forgotten any assignments. She was a little surprised that Mr. Walter was showing a film. He usually warned them the day before.

Class filled with her fellow students. To Miranda’s quick analysis, thirty percent looked happy and engaged. Ten percent looked scared of everyone else. Fifty-sixty percent looked incredibly bored–those were the ones who usually sat in the back. She formed an equation to plot how many acted bored and how many were genuinely bored. It’d be easier if she had access to IQ records. She suspected the truly bored ones had very low IQ. She could see being bored when class wasn’t challenging, but how could anyone be bored in Mr. Walter’s class?

“And we sit!”

Miranda was already sitting, but everyone else found theirs. Mr. Walter never called anyone a kid or a student. Miranda respected his teaching methods, even though they could be a little stressful.

“You no doubt notice we have a surprise today. Watching a film causes the inability to take notes and is therefore less work than if we used a book.” Kids laughed. “I’ve cued this film after the titles and, without sound, we– ha ha ha, sorry– you have to identify the time period and the location.”

Other kids groaned, but Miranda was excited. She pulled out her notebook and pen. She’d made this notebook too, so every other page was covered in crossed-out pages from their printer. It reminded her of her investigation book. Cindy and the … bird thing dropped into her consciousness like ice water. She’d been in the Bauteil’s car! She could have interviewed them properly. Maybe she could try to get a ride back, but no, dad would probably be home by then.

The bottom of the desktop scratched her knees, which was weird. She’d surreptitiously measured the height of the desk last week when she was thinking about ergonomics. She’d thought it was a little too high then. She doubted she’d grown much in a week. Everyone was focused on Mr. Walter fighting with the projector. She leaned forward to look at the legs.

That explained it. It wasn’t the same desk. The legs were iron and swept forward in a sort of curl down to the floor. Actually, all of the desk-legs in the room were like that. Where had the school system gotten the money?

She sat back up and looked at the top of the desk. The “HI!” heart was new, but it still had the half moon carved in the top right corner, the one she always stuck her finger in while taking notes. She couldn’t figure out why they’d replace the legs and use the old desktops. When had they even had time to do this?

The projector started up, and Mr. Walter called out. “Someone get the lights.”