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

Miranda sat on an old blanket on the Bauteils’ couch with Mom’s head on her lap. They were both soaked with flower oil. John made coffee in the kitchen while Bill and Tom found them towels.

The couch had changed, but Miranda couldn’t remember how it had looked before. Now it was covered with some sort of corduroy fabric. Mom was going to have lines on her arm when she got up. Miranda stroked Mom’s head.

Cindy came back from her room with one of her dresses. “Do you want to change?” The dress was green, probably the least girly thing Cindy owned, which was probably why she’d never seen Cindy wear it.

The dress looked even more plain against the yellow frilly dress Cindy wore now. Miranda felt warm inside. Cindy wasn’t just looking out for her, she knew to offer her least frilly dress.

Her heart clenched. Did Cindy know so much about Miranda’s taste because Miranda had made her? Was Cindy anything more than a collection of things Miranda was missing in her life?

She shifted uncomfortably on the couch. Her clothes felt surprisingly comfortable, considering. The flower slime was drying away, leaving her clothes feeling softer and lightly floral smelling. Her hair felt conditioned.

Cindy waited. Miranda shook her head. “Thanks. I think I’ll just let these dry.”

Cindy folded the dress, She looked a little disappointed, but she shrugged. “I’ll get you some milk.”

Was Cindy anything more than a playmate? A servant Miranda had dreamed up?

The towels Tom brought were warm and fluffy. Maybe he’d run them in the dryer.

“Thanks.” Miranda put one on her neck and rubbed Mom’s hair with the other.

Mom opened her eyes and coughed. “We need a plan.”

Either Mom’s voice or the open window made Tom stop. His face ran through confusion and recognition. “That… river…”

Miranda stopped rubbing Mom’s hair.

Mom sat up, “Yeah?”

Tom looked as if he were thinking deeply. Cindy said her dads had noticed something was weird about town, but they’d never been able to say specifics before.

Cindy watched her dads from the bathroom door. John and Bill came over from the kitchen and joined Tom by the window.

It was like watching them wake up. Tom said, “That river is new. We used to have a road.”

Bill nodded. “I checked the garage, how would we use the car?”

Mom nodded. She grabbed Miranda’s knee. “This is new.” She observed the three dads like they were lab animals. “No one, besides you, ever notices the changes.” It made Miranda uncomfortable that Mom was speaking as if the dads weren’t right there.

“I do.” Cindy came from around with a glass in each hand.

Mom’s fingers dug into Miranda’s knee. “I assumed Miranda convinced you.”

Cindy shook her head. “The school keeps changing. Dad didn’t believe me at first either.” The glasses of milk formed condensation around her fingers.

“This is new.” Mom repeated.

After everything they’d been through, Miranda couldn’t see why this was a big deal.

“It’s been like constant deja vu lately.” Bill shrugged. “The library has always had a drive through, but I remember it otherwise.” Tom and John nodded.

Mom shot up from the couch like a spring. The Bauteils parted for her. She paced to the kitchen and back. “It used to be only I noticed the changes, even before… the god changed me.”

Bill frowned. “The god?”

Mom waved her hand. “In a second.” She pointed at their house across the street. “Sometimes I thought even I was missing changes.” She looked at Miranda. “Like with Alice.”

A little pain twitched in Miranda’s chest.

Mom didn’t seem to notice. She sat down on the couch again. “But now people are starting to notice.”

Cindy finally noticed she had the milk glasses. She handed one to Miranda. “At least us. I still don’t think anyone in town notices.”

Mom nodded absently. “Just me and people Miranda has m–” Miranda knocked Mom on the hip. Mom stumbled. “The… people in this house.”

Cindy’s glass froze halfway to her mouth. She looked from Mom to Miranda. “What’s she saying?”

The uncomfortable silence drew out. How would people she’d made react to finding out she’d made them? She coughed.

To her credit, Mom picked up on Miranda’s tension. Cindy and her dads looked like they were waiting for an answer.

Mom stood up from the couch. She dragged Miranda to her feet. “I think the Bauteils and I need a minute.”

The tension felt so thick, Miranda could barely breath. She realized she was still clutching the full glass of milk. She set it on the side table. They were all standing in an awkward circle.

Bill sighed and wiped his face. “Cindy, hon, maybe you and Miranda should go in your room for a little bit.”

Mom gave Miranda a look. She’d probably meant to speak to Cindy too. After a pause, she nodded.

The relief at not having to explain, made Miranda feel giddy, but it was immediately followed by guilt. Without thinking about it, she leaned in to hug Mom.

Mom gasped and stiffened like she been shocked. Miranda felt three awkward pats on her back.

Embarrassment ran through Miranda. She knew Mom didn’t like to be touched.

She was just about to apologize when Mom hugged her so hard, Miranda could barely breath.

Mom’s voice cracked. “It’s going to be okay.”

Mom gently pushed Miranda back and looked her in the eye. “I guess things are changing.”

The look passed and the Mom’s face got hard again. She pulled Miranda close and whispered, “Don’t change anything. The mad god is too close to waking up.”

She pushed Miranda in Cindy’s direction. Cindy seemed to realize she hadn’t drank her milk either. She set it on the counter. As Miranda followed Cindy to her room, Mom invited the Bauteil dads to sit on the couch.

As Miranda closed Cindy’s door behind her, she heard Mom say. “We don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to be blunt.”

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

Mom tugged at Miranda, her jaw set. “Get in the car. We’re leaving.”

A flock of scissors circled and flew over the house.

Miranda yanked her wrist away. “Mom, there’s not even a street anymore.”

One of the scissors embedded into the side of the house.

Mom fell to her knees. “Maybe you could–“

“I need to see Cindy.” Miranda walked to the edge of the new river. The red flowers moved past each other wetly, like fish. The banks of the river looked slick, like glass. Miranda felt like she was on Mars or something.

She yelled across the street … the river. “Cindy!”

Mom’s voice called from behind her. “We need to go.”

Miranda kept looking at the water. “There’s no where left to go. Have you ever seen anything like this?”

“No.”

“I’m staying with the people I care about.” She looked back at Mom. “Please come with me.”

Mom looked down the river into town. “You made Cindy, she’s … part of this.” She motioned at the houses. “The only chance we have to keep the mad god from fully waking up is to…”

Something in the way Mom stopped made Miranda look back. “Is to what?”

Mom pushed herself off the ground. She brushed dirt off her knees. “Is to put it back to normal.”

Miranda felt cold. “Like Alice?”

“Miranda, I–“

Miranda turned and two steps later dove into the river. She intended to swim across, she instantly fell beneath the surface and was blind. The flowers weren’t floating in water, they were the water. Flowers slid by her like slugs and she couldn’t find purchase. Blackness swallowed her. Squishy flowers pressed against her face. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe.

She panicked and flailed. Muffled above her, she heard Mom scream, “Miranda!”

Her legs hit the glassy bottom. It was as slick as the walls. She tried to kick up, but the flowers weren’t like water, she couldn’t swim in them.

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The flowers around her vibrated with a deep slapping sound and something clamped onto her arm.

Instinctively she fought. She tried to rip her arm away it until Mom’s voice came through the slick flowers. “Stop fighting.”

Mom shoved her toward the opposite edge, but they both were sucked downriver by the flower’s movement. Slowly, with Mom’s help, she reached the other side.

Once there Mom pushed through the flowers and grabbed Miranda’s shoe.She barely heard Mom say. “On three!”

Miranda didn’t know what she meant at first, but Mom said, “One. Two.”

And she got it. Just as Mom heaved up, Miranda straightened her leg and pushed up through the flowers. She broke through the surface and gasped. She was blinded by flower slime. The downstream flowers’ movement pulled her out of Mom’s hands.

She panicked again, but a yellow blur jutted out from the edge of the riverbank. She grabbed at it and it turned out to be a bright yellow fire hydrant. The metal hurt, but she held on.

She couldn’t hold on with the slime on her hands. “Help!”

The flowers moved slowly, but they sucked at her legs and she knew she was going to lose her grip in a second. “Mom!”

A hand grabbed her shirt collar and another hooked under her arm.

Bill’s voice sounded worried, but like he was trying to sound calm.”We have you.”

Two people pulled her from the water. Cindy’s voice came from nearby.”Is she okay?”

Miranda pushed herself up. “Mom’s in the river!”

The arms dropped her and Cindy came over while Miranda wiped the slime out of her eyes. Cindy wiped at her face too.

“What’s happening?” Miranda lifted her shirt and wiped her face with it. “Where’s Mom? Is she okay?”

When she lowered the shirt, she could just barely see. Through a haze she saw Tom and Bill holding legs, probably John’s.

He seemed to hang there forever before they pulled back on him. It was like the flowers were resistant to let him go, but they managed to pull him back. If it was that hard to get him out, did that mean Mom was gone?

Cindy ran over and grabbed a leg and pulled. With an ugly wet noise John rose out of the flowers. His head slide out of the river and he yelled, “I got her!”

Miranda jumped up. John’s arms strained in the flower river. Miranda dashed over and reached in past John. “Mom!”

She felt Mom’s arm and grabbed her shirt. She and John strained, but Mom wouldn’t budge. How soon before she suffocated?

Bill came around and reached in for Mom’s other arm. “On three.”

Together the five of them pulled on three and Mom slowly slid out. She was unconscious.

They got her out on the ground. Bill gently pushed Miranda aside. “Cindy, take Miranda into the house.”

Miranda brushed off Cindy. “Is she okay?”

He didn’t stop to answer. He pulled Mom’s neck up and hooked his finger in her mouth. He listened for a second. “She’s breathing.”

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

Miranda didn’t stop running, just left Mom yelling behind her in the house. She got halfway across the lawn when Mom tackled her. They landed next to the juniper bushes. Miranda started swinging, not even sure who she was mad at. Mom clamped her arms around Miranda’s. Even as a woman, she was still way stronger than Miranda.

“Get off me!”

Mom whispered. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Just breathe.”

The rage ate at her. Was there a single thing about her that wasn’t a lie? Miranda kicked one more time and was still. Everything was her fault. She was just like the mad god.

Mom said, “Breathe.”

Miranda felt petulant. Just because Mom said to breathe, Miranda held her breath instead.

White dots danced in front of her eyes, she kicked her feet. Why did she have to breathe if she was the child of a god? Finally she let out a huff. Mom loosened her arms, a little. Miranda thought about running again. Where would she go?

The grass itched at Miranda’s face and she pushed up into a sitting position. Mom wouldn’t look at her for a long time. “I’ve suspected, long before Alice, that you had some of its power.”

It was like a flashbulb going off in Miranda’s head. “I made Alice!” She felt stupid and slow.

Mom looked away, but she nodded. “I didn’t realize at first. When I’m the focus of the magic, it changes me too. I knew something was wrong, but it took me years to figure out what. Then, when she … changed over time. I started to worry about you.” She let go of Miranda entirely and leaned back.

Miranda put her head in her hands. “It’s all my fault.” School, the town, everything.

“Absolutely not!” Mom took her shoulders. “This is entirely the mad god’s fault. You are my daughter and I love you.”

Mom looked blurry through Miranda’s tears. So blurry, Miranda could almost imagine her as Dad again.

Only a week ago her life had been … she was thinking simpler, but it had never been simple, it had never been easy or happy. Her life had been miserable. “How did I do this?”

And how could she fix it?

Mom sighed and tore at the grass. “You have some of the god’s abilities, it’s unconscious.” She threw the grass. “I’ve been trying to train your mind, trying to steep you in history and modern life. The more you know the world as it is, the less you’ll accidentally imagine something new into existence.” Mom interlaced her fingers. “You and the mad god are intertwined. You calming your mind keeps the god asleep.”

The street was now largely visible in the morning light. Miranda could just see Cindy’s house through the bushes. She wondered if the Bauteils were still awake too.

Mom wiped the tears off Miranda’s face. “I’m done lying to you. I was afraid of you. I hated you.” She rubbed her face. “I lost my husband. I lost my whole life ….”

A wind shook the juniper bushes and for a moment, Miranda saw Cindy’s entire house through them.

Oh no.

She put her hands to her mouth. “Cindy and her Dads.”

Mom nodded. “You didn’t have a mom, so Alice. You didn’t have a friend, so…”

Had she made Cindy, like a doll? Someone to play with?

She barely felt Mom take one of her hands and squeeze it. “Through the thoughtful collection and study of information we take control of our own lives.” Mom patted her hand. “With mental rigor and careful thinking, you can be a normal person.” She didn’t quite sound like she believed herself.

Miranda didn’t know what to believe anymore.

It struck them so suddenly that Miranda lost her breath. A giant wave of reality change washed over them with the force of a hurricane.

The street was now a stream, it lazily snaked between the houses. Instead of water, it was filled with red flowers that tumbled after one another, down the hill into town.

Each of the houses on the block was a slightly different shade of blue. Together they made a gradient that stretched off into the trees.

Miranda’s house hadn’t changed.

She could barely get out the words. “Did I do that?”

Mom’s voice was almost inaudible. “It’s waking up.”

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

Mom rose from the table. “We should pack.”

The conversation had been so confusing, Miranda still hadn’t said she wasn’t leaving Cindy. “Mom–“

Mom sighed and took the flashlight. “Miranda, I know. I know you care about Cindy and I know this isn’t fair, but our only chance is to get you to a more stable place.” She flashed the light on the ceiling, the walls. Anywhere but at Miranda. “We have to start over.”

A fire burned in Miranda’s chest. She wanted to grab Mom’s face and make Mom look her in eyes. “This isn’t working. We’re going to do this to another town? And another?”

In the failing light, Miranda could almost see Dad’s face instead of Mom’s. “We’ll just keep moving.”

Miranda shook her head. “We can’t do that forever. If the mad god is talking to us, can’t you program it more?”

The flashlight hit the floor. Wild light flashed around while it rolled. Mom’s horrified face flashed in and out. “What?”

The light made spots on Miranda’s vision. She thought Mom knew. “It sent me notes.” She waved her hands. “A big cloud of papers. It’s been writing on the side of the water tower.”

The light stopped moving and Mom’s face was light from beneath. Her face looked like a skull. “It’s closer to awake than I thought!”

Miranda’s head hurt again. She crouched down and grabbed the flashlight. “Have you looked outside? This morning there weren’t any sidewalks.”

When she brought the light back up, Mom looked like a child, like she didn’t even register Miranda was there. “Where can we go? What Can we do?”

What had changed? Miranda screamed, “Mom! What aren’t telling me?”

Mom’s eyes cleared. For a second Miranda thought she might stall or change the subject again.

But instead she let out a huge sigh. “Arnold, my old husband. He’s not your father.”

Neither of them said anything. There was something obvious there in the words and Miranda didn’t want to see it.

She motioned to across the street. “I’m like Cindy? Do I have five fathers?” She almost corrected herself. Three now.

Mom looked out into the yard. The sun was just starting to make the horizon burn. She took the flashlight from Miranda and clicked it off. “No. You have one mother, me.”

She wiped her face and looked Miranda in the eye. “And one father, the mad god.”

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

The back of Bauteil’s car was cold, but Bill had a blanket in the trunk and wrapped Dad in it for the drive home.

By the time Bill had arrived, Officer Lidbeck looked less dazed and was asking questions.

Bill had somehow gotten Cindy, Miranda and Dad out the door. Miranda wasn’t sure why Officer Lidbeck let a woman in a hospital gown and two young girls go without an explanation. Maybe on some level Officer Lidbeck knew her memory would fade.

Maybe the sooner the better.

Miranda held the blanket tight against Dad. Dad didn’t move or speak.

Once they got to Huntington Street, Bill said, “we’ll set you up in our living room.”

“Thank you, no.” Dad didn’t even move. She just stared out the window.

Bill nodded, but his smile looked forced. He stopped the car in from of Miranda’s house.

The house looked darker. Miranda wasn’t sure if that was a reality change or just her feelings.

Dad got out and folded the blanket carefully before setting it on the seat.

When Dad shut the door, Miranda grabbed Cindy’s shoulder. “We’ll talk before Dad and I make any decisions.”

Cindy nodded and Miranda jumped out and ran after Dad.

Dad ripped away the police tape. Miranda must have left the door unlocked the last time she was there, because Dad went right in.

Miranda looked back at Cindy and Bill, still waiting in the car. Bill waved.

She shut the door and her eyes had to adjust to the dark. The house was musty and cold and the lights were still out.

Dad grabbed a flashlight from a cabinet by the front door. “Wait here.” She went upstairs.

The first thought in Miranda’s head was to warn her about the blood spot, but of course Dad would know.

Was it even still there? It made her head spin. And Dad, no, Mom, Miranda needed to train herself. Mom, Mom, Mom, Mom.

The house felt less threatening now that … Mom was back. Miranda wanted to go up into her own room, maybe check the her hiding places were still intact. She sat on the floor with her back against the door. D … Mom and she were about to have the worst fight ever, because she wasn’t leaving town without Cindy.

The stairs squeaked as Mom came down. Miranda caught herself smile. At least the stairway hadn’t changed.

Mom was in shadow behind the flashlight and Miranda felt a weird panic that she’d be wearing one of Alice’s dresses. Seeing that would push Miranda over the edge, she was sure of it.

But Mom wasn’t. She wore a flannel and khakis. The clothes more or less fit. They were Dad’s favorite weekend clothes… when Mom was Dad… Miranda’s head hurt.

“Miranda?” Mom sounded panicked. She flashed around, briefly blinding Miranda when she found her. “What are you doing on the floor?”

Miranda rubber her eyes. “Sitting.”

The light flashed down the hall to the kitchen. “Do you need food?”

Miranda said, “Mom, we need to talk.”

The light froze. Miranda could just make out Mom’s face.

After a moment, Mom rubbed her face. “Wow, ‘mom’, I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”

She shined the light at the floor, so both of their faces were illuminated.

In the glow, she considered Miranda. “Yeah, I suppose we do.”

She helped Miranda up and Miranda followed her to the kitchen. If anything, it was colder than the front hall. Miranda rubbed her arms.

Mom stuck the flashlight in a wide vase and put it in the center of the table. With the light pointed at the ceiling, the whole kitchen was dimly lit.

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The garage door was still ajar from when Miranda had been in there. Mom pushed it shut and leaned her head against the door. “That safe was the last of my memories before … before.”

When she looked back, she was smiling, just a little. “You couldn’t get in there till I was knocked out.” She tapped her head.

Miranda suddenly felt incredibly tired. She tried to remember the last time she slept.

The kitchen felt less cramped with just the two of them. Something about that felt sad. Mom sat down at the table, but she shifted in her seat like she couldn’t find a comfortable way to sit.

Miranda took a breath. She wasn’t going to let herself get hysterical this time. “I’m not leaving without Cindy.”

The flashlight shook when Mom shot up from her seat. Her face flashed anger before she moved across the kitchen into shadow.

The refrigerator door opened and Mom rattled some bottles. “I need to tell you some things about Cindy.”

“I know it’s dangerous because the mad god made her.”

Mom paused a long time. “It’s more complicated than that.” Cabinets opened and closed. “Shine the light over here, will you.”

Miranda grabbed the flashlight and found Mom standing on her tiptoes, reaching into the cabinet. “At least I’m not shorter. I’d never get anything down.”

She came back to the table with a plate of cookies and an unopened soy-milk container. “I’m not sure we can trust the food in the fridge anymore.”

Her face fell. “Alice made these.” She set the cookies on the table.

Had Miranda checked these for poison? At this point she couldn’t make herself care.

She took a cookie and bit into it. Pecans, vanilla, cinnamon. Alice always did something a little extra to make chocolate chip cookies taste special.

Something about that made her want to cry.

Mom’s face was like stone. Little muscles twitched on her cheeks where she ground her teeth. She pulled open the soy-milk container and drank directly from it. She choked a little. “I need to tell you how I stopped the mad god last time.”

Miranda swallowed. All her resolve melted under Mom’s deadly serious stare. She reached for the soy-milk. Alice would have hated them drinking directly from the container.

The light shook again when Mom put her hands on the table, palms up. “The mad god remakes reality, however it wants.” She paused, as if to let that sink in for Miranda. “But, it’s worse than that. I don’t know how else to say it. What we think of as reality is really just the mad god’s dream.”

She sat back in her chair and bit into another cookie. “It took a fancy to me because I was the first creation with my own powers. It could give me knowledge, but I never understood everything.”

Miranda opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She nodded. It wasn’t like she really understood, but she couldn’t think what else to do.

Mom put down most of the cookie uneaten. “It decided it liked me better as a man.” She dropped her hands to her lap. “After I had you, of course. Maybe as a punishment for running away with you, that first time. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem capable of getting angry.” Her face went blank, she looked lost. “I was married to a fine man, but the mad god made him … go away.”

Dad? Miranda’s real dad? She had a thousand questions, but they all mashed into each other until she couldn’t think what to ask first. “The mad god erased him, like Alice?”

Mom shook her head. “The mad god can’t erase real people, for some reason.” She snorted. “Whatever ‘real’ means. No, the god made him into a Chinese sailor and sent him away.”

Wow. Miranda felt like she should comfort Mom somehow, but Mom had that hard set face that still scared Miranda a little.

Where to start? Mom was telling her all this for a reason. She waved her hand vaguely at the window. “But if it made you into a man … if it can do anything, how did you ever run away from it?”

Mom smiled sadly. “Oh, it’s not running per se. I tricked the mad god into falling asleep.”

Miranda shook her head. We’re a god’s dream, but Mom made the god sleep. Miranda shook her head again for good measure.

“We have to make sure we never … stand out.” Mom waved in the direction of Cindy’s house. “It doesn’t give the mad god the chance to think about us for too long.”

“How can the god think about us when it’s sleeping.”

Mom rubbed her head. “The mad god can do almost anything, just … slightly less so while it’s asleep.”

“How do you know all this?”

Mom just stared at her for a minute. “It thought it was funny that I know how it works.”

They sat in silence for a bit. Miranda ate two more cookies. The more she ate, the more she realized she was starving.

“I used to be a programmer.” Mom grinned, just for a second. “I’m pretty smart, you know.”

Miranda nodded.

“When I realized it …” The flash must have been dying, because Mom’s face was washed out and hollow looking. “It can make anything. It can destroy anything. The planet, the solar system, the universe.” Mom closed her eyes. “We’ll never get away. It can change everything. Everything will cease to be if it wakes up. It’s done it a million times before.” She reached for the soy-milk. “We’re like dolls.”

After a few sips, she said, “I’m sorry to dump all this on you.”

Mom looked out the window. Not that she could see anything, the yard was too dark. “I’m not going to be around forever. You need to know its weakness.”

What weakness could it possibly have. Miranda noticed she was thinking about that because she didn’t want to think about Mom not being around anymore.

“The mad god is … simple, in some ways. I suggested that, since we’re its dream, wasn’t it curious how we dream?” Mom cracked her knuckles. “If the mad god has a weakness, it’s curiosity. Only a god is powerful enough to put itself to sleep.”

Something nagged at Miranda. “All the meditation and exercises, it’s just to keep us from waking it up?”

Mom didn’t look back from the window. “That’s only half of it.”