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

Miranda rubbed her eyes. Just the day before, the linoleum in school was a sort of pinky-grey vomit color. It was the same linoleum in every hallway, every classroom. Just like every day since the school had been built.

Today it was a light blue.

Honestly, the new color looked nicer. Now it matched the grey walls.

Miranda tried to convince herself that the school had changed the floors over night, maybe Mr. Brown had worked all night with a team of floor layers. But it obviously wasn’t new linoleum; it looked just as worn as the old pink stuff. She walked to her lockers through milling kids. The cracks around her locker were in the same pattern as every day. She’d studied them.

Except now the floor was blue.

She closed one eye, then the other, trying to see if her color perception had changed. Maybe some sort of oxygen loss was changing her perceptions? She wished she had a color vision deficiency test.

As far as she could tell, all the colors in the school looked exactly the same as yesterday, except for the floor.

Also the lockers were half an inch deeper.

Her books weren’t as close to the locker door as yesterday. She examined her math textbook. It could have shrunk, but it was still about an inch longer than the span of her hand. Maybe her hand had shrank too?

Madness was at the end of this line of thinking. She shook her head.

People stared at her. She was obviously being weird again, spending too much time staring at her locker and the floor. She couldn’t fathom why no one else noticed the changes, but she was sick of being stared at, even more than usual, so she closed her locker and walked on.

Cindy stood looking aimless outside Mr. Walter’s history class–even though she needed to be at first period English soon, way on the other side of school.

Cindy continued to stare at the lockers as Miranda walked up to her.

Without looking away from the lockers, Cindy said, “Something’s changed.”

Miranda wanted to hug her. “I didn’t think anyone noticed!” She wanted to hug Cindy. She looked around furtively and lowered her voice. “The floor’s different too.”

Cindy’s dress was subdued, muted blue. Definitely less frilly than usual. Her clothes made Miranda feel self-conscious about her jeans and red tee-shirt. “Your dress looks nice.”

Cindy blushed and looked back at the lockers.

Miranda waited for Cindy to look back. They should be talking about how to test for other changes, but maybe Cindy’s eyes would glaze over like everyone else’s. If Miranda couldn’t keep this conversation going with Cindy, she had no chance of keeping anyone interested. Was the conversation already flagging?

So she said, “About your …” She brought her voice down to a whisper, “problem.” More of a stage whisper. Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between the two.

Cindy looked left and right. Honestly, kids were passing constantly, but no one seemed to care what they were talking about. “I asked Dad this morning when he drove me to school.”

So, probably Bill-Dad.

“I asked where my birth certificate was.” Cindy twisted the hair above her ear. “He just looked confused. I told him I needed it for school.”

Miranda frowned. “Didn’t you need it to get into school in the first place?”

“I don’t know.” Cindy shrugged. “I’ve been trying to remember back when I was younger.” She looked a little lost and scared.

Miranda wanted to put a hand on her shoulder, but she felt shy. She didn’t know what to say, so she said, “I sort of remember everything, all the way back to being born, but I’m weird like that.”

Cindy frowned again. “I don’t remember moving to town. I hadn’t thought about that till now.”

The first period bell rang. Miranda shifted back and forth and then finally settled on squeezing Cindy’s shoulder again. “It’s going to be okay.” She hoped that sounded confident.

The second bell rang and she ran into history class to keep herself from squeezing Cindy’s shoulder again.

#

It had been two days since she’d made herself available for tutoring in the office and she felt guilty. Honestly not a lot of people asked her for help, but she wanted to be responsible. After history she used her forty-five minute break to ask Mr. Hanson if anyone had asked. He’d definitely be in the teachers’ lounge till next period.

The first thing that made her stop was the door. The wood was darker, Walnut or Cherry. The translucent window had been replaced with stained glass, dark blue panes surrounded by light blue and orange stars. Under the window had been an old laminated pink sign that read Students please knock before entering. Now there was a brass plaque that read Teachers Only. She stood there unable to decide how to react.

The school was changing. She wished she had Cindy here to confirm that she wasn’t going crazy.

She wanted to touch the door, to make sure it was real. She might as well knock. Mr. Hanson had once said that she could come and go. He’d grinned. “Since you’re almost a teacher anyway.” A senior passed, looked at her and the door and moved on. Miranda took the last step and knocked.

There was a long pause before someone came. The stained window darkened and Mr. Hanson’s face appeared in the crack.

Surprise crossed his face and then anger. “What is it? You may speak.”

She shifted. His face looked set, almost like he didn’t recognize her. “I …” Were people changing too? “It’s me, Miranda.”

His face set. “I know who you are, Ms. McGee.”

This new attitude was unsettling. Miranda knew she should just apologize, turn and leave, but a part of her refused to believe Mr. Hanson was so different.

She said, “Can I just come in for a minute?”

Mr. Hanson froze. The shock on his face wiped away the anger.

She plowed on, “I just need to look at the tutoring records.”

He said, “What did you say?”

“I just need to see if anyone’s come in … for tutoring.” She leaned back.

ch6

Mr. Hanson twisted around to the teachers behind him. They were looking, seeing a student at their door, frowning.

His face was red with anger. “You presume?” He was nearly shouting.

“What?” Miranda felt like she should just run away. She thought of the changed lockers and the floor. Maybe she should just go home and hide in her bed and wait for everything to go back to normal.

Mr. Hanson looked back down at her. “You’ve already broken the speaking rule. I could have let you off with a mark on your record, but you’re suggesting you be allowed to enter teacher space?”

Miranda couldn’t help herself, “What’s the ‘speaking rule?'”

“You presume!” Mr. Hanson roared.

He took her by shoulder and violently turned her around. “Ms. McGee, when the receptionist acknowledges you, you will tell her you’ve committed infraction twelve.” He pushed her and she stumbled forward.

Her arm slowly went from numb to aching from where he’d grabbed her. Still the belligerent part of her brain wanted to ask Mr. Hanson for details. What was infraction twelve?

She turned to ask, but the door slammed behind her.

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

Out on the street, Cindy leaned against one of the towns old green-painted street lights. The kind with curly cues carved at the top. Miranda smiled, but Cindy didn’t smile back.

Cindy crossed her arms. “Were you making fun of my family?”

“No, of course not! But you know your family isn’t … usual, and this town is totally conservative. They don’t like things that are different.

Cindy wasn’t getting it.

“Isn’t it weird that they don’t think your family is … weird?”

Cindy looked at the ground. “I guess so.”

Miranda scratched the last of her notes out on her pad. “We should do some other tests, to make sure no one in the town feels differently.”

Cindy looked up the street. “Why doesn’t anyone notice these things?” In the distance was the water tower and below that was city hall.

“I don’t know yet. Come on.” Miranda headed toward city hall.

The town’s hall of records was really just a computer in a room in the basement of the court building. There wasn’t even an official clerk.

Mrs. Murphy, the courthouse stenographer and secretary sat behind the giant wood desk / counter that separated the courthouse from the records hall. Really it was just placed in front of the door to the basement.

Mrs. Murphy said, “Don’t break anything and don’t save anything.” She handed Miranda a key and smiled at Cindy. “How are those good-looking dads of yours.”

“Fine, thank you.” Cindy smiled at Miranda.

Once they’d navigated the slippery concrete stairs to the basement, they had to search along the wall to find a light switch. Miranda was sure she’d find a spiders nest.

It took five minutes for the new florescent lights to warm up enough to see well. The room had some file cabinets and one wall was lined with glass cabinets. As they got closer Miranda saw inside, bits of carved rock and some feathers. Maybe this room had been a museum back in the day? She made a note in her journal.

The back wall was cropped in by shelves, but wedged between them was an old folding table with a fairly new-looking computer centered on it. Miranda sat in the creaking wooden chair while Cindy looked for another chair. The computer made a wheezing whirring sound. No surprise, it was probably sucking in all the dust of this basement. It had a sign taped to its front, “Server. Do not turn off.”

When Miranda wiggled the mouse, she expected the monitor to light up, but when it didn’t she hit the power button on the back of it.

Cindy rolled up with a chair just like Miranda’s. “What are we looking for? Man, that’s an old monitor.”

The system password screen slowly fade up. Mrs. Murphy hadn’t mentioned a password. Miranda tried just hitting enter.

And there was all the town’s records. A neat grid of folders marked by year. The top left folder was dated 1936. They must have digitized their old paper records.

Miranda moused over the rightmost two folders. “You moved here three months ago?”

Cindy squinted into the screen. “I think so.”

Miranda clicked on this year’s folder. “Ok.”

The window was full of folders labeled things like “Fire” “Sewer” and “Deaths.” There was probably a better way to organize this information, but she appreciated the clean grid.

“No, really. What are we looking for?”

Miranda scrolled down in the folder. “This.” She clicked a folder labeled “Real Estate.”

If her hypothesis (not theory. Theories couldn’t be speculative) was that there’d be no record of Cindy’s Dad’s renting their house. She was a little scared to prove this to Cindy. If there was no record of Cindy moving to town, what did that mean?

The folder was organized by name, which was good since Cindy didn’t know the exact dates they’d moved in. “And you’re sure you’re not renting the house?”

“No, Dad said they bought it.”

Miranda kept herself from asking, “Which dad?”

She kept scrolling down to B. “Did he say who they bought the house from?”

“I don’t think so.”

Bauteil. There they were. So much for that theory … hypothesis. She clicked on the folder. There were five files in it, each with numerical titles so long the computer cut them off. She moused over them till she found one that included Transfer of Deed in the title.

She clicked on that one, but it took the computer a while to open it.

Miranda looked around her. The shelves mostly held thin grey boxes, the kind that probably held a bound official book. Next to the boxes, the shelves were packed with bead necklaces and rusted farm tools.

ch5sketch03

Cindy gasped. Miranda craned her neck to look at her. Cindy was staring at the screen, so Miranda looked too. The document looked official, pretty much what she imagined a house deed would look like, but the writing in the entry blanks were thick red and smudged. Miranda scrolled down. The red writing seemed to not just be in the blanks, there was writing in the margins and eventually whole pages were covered in drawings: flowers, puppies and lightening bolts.

She rolled it back to the top and squinted. The owner line seemed to be filled in with “Bauteil.”

Cindy touched the screen, like she could scratch at the digitized paper. “Is that crayon?”

#

Mrs. Murphy barely looked up from her magazine when she took the key. She waved at a line of sunlight gleaming off the shiny paper, as if it were a fly. Miranda waited for her to look up again, but eventually had to clear her throat.

“What you need sweetie.” Mrs. Murphy flipped a page.

The light gleamed in Miranda’s eyes. She looked at Cindy. Cindy nodded, which made Miranda feel a little more brave. “Do you know fills out the mortgage paperwork?”

Mrs. Murphy frowned and looked up at the ceiling for a moment. She looked back to the magazine before she answered. “Mr. Bradly’s the only real-estate agent in town, then they’re always notarized by Mr. Perkins at the bank.”

It really was a small town. Miranda thought for a moment. She’d never met Mr. Bradly before. Mr. Perkins was a nice, quiet man. Once she’d had to convert some rolls of pennies and he seemed very patient.

“Do, you know … Mr. Bradly, he’s not crazy is he?”

An inhale of breath came from Cindy behind her.

The magazine made a thwomp sound as it hit the desk. Mrs. Murphy stared at Miranda for a whole minute.

“What?” The expression on Mrs. Murphy’s face looked as if Miranda had turned purple or something.

Cindy shifted from foot to foot. “What she means is–“

Miranda pushed on. “Does he use a pen?”

“Honey, what in the heavens are you talking about?”

She could feel herself shaking with embarrassment. She wanted to grab Cindy’s hand for support. Cindy would probably let her too, but she didn’t think people did that in public, at least not in Aught.

“It’s just that we looked up the deed on my house and there’s … ” Cindy waved vaguely down to the basement. “Something weird about it and we were worried about the … legalness of it.”

Mrs. Murphy smiled in that way that adults did when they were about to tell you how stupid you were. “Now hon, I’m sure the paperwork is in order.” She looked from one of them to the other and let out a little snort. “How would you know the difference anyway?”

Miranda’s face was hot. “That’s why we asked about the pen–“

Cindy blurted out. “Will you at least come down and look at it with us?”

Mrs. Murphy looked affronted. “I can’t leave my post, hon.” She picked up her magazine again.

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

Before she went out, she called the school and asked them to ask Cindy about getting her homework. Mrs. Grieves in the office sounded weird.

The whole town was weird.

The single main strip looked like something out of a movie. Old east-coast brick buildings, nothing more than two stories on either side of two lanes that basically cut the town in half. As the town had grown street were built out into the hills, forming the neighborhoods and school and on up to the hospital on the hill.

Mr. Stevens, who owned the drugstore, had started growing a mustache. It looked like stubble on his lip. When Miranda asked what his wife thought of it, he looked at her like she was an alien. She added facial hair to her list of possible social taboo topics. He didn’t look as offended as when Mrs. Emmons in the library had when Miranda had talked about how pigs were easier to impregnate if they had orgasms first. Dad had been surprisingly calm when Mrs. Emmons called.

It wasn’t like people weren’t nice. Miranda quite liked Mr. Stevens’s store. He always told boring stories and zoning out during them gave her a sort of peaceful feeling sort of like doing Dad’s meditation practice.

Virgina trees were lush and dense, and they defined the edges of town like it was an island in a sea of green. There were little cuts where the highway went off in four directions. It’d been so long since they’d left town. Dad didn’t really take vacations. The trees surrounding town were starting to really feel like walls.

Why’d she have to feel like this now? Cindy might be her first friend. She’d made plans even. College, job, a future. Maybe she’d go to veterinary school, maybe she’d get her degree and set up a practice, something just outside of town, out in the woods. She’d make a difference too. Local farmers currently had to go all the way out to Jetersville to get vet service.

It wasn’t fair. This was the first town that felt like her town, her home. She didn’t love her house, but it was there and she liked it for that.

She wasn’t sure it was exactly the life that she was looking for, but it was a potential life. Maybe she could even change her mind along the way and do something different, but that didn’t seem likely, she liked to know what the future had in store for her, she liked to have a plan.

The town had a Radio Shack, the kind with an old black and white sign that read “The Radio Shack Corp.” The guys behind the counter knew her pretty well and she generally liked most of them, except Randell, the kid who’d flunked out of her her high school who always stared at her.

“I need piezo buzzers.” Randell was already smiling at her when she came in. He put down a copy of Amateur Electronics magazine. It was better to just get to the point right away.

He said, “Are you actually buzzing or making surface mics?”

“Why do you want to know?” She didn’t mean to sound as sharp as she did.

He held up his hands. “Whoa. It’s just that the smaller piezo’s are harder to break out of their enclosure. It’s harder to make mics out of them.”

She felt guilty, but didn’t want to necessarily share her plans with Randell. “I might need both.”

He nodded, but looked sullen. “Well, you know where they are.” He gestured at the bins in the back corner of the store and went back to his magazine.

She’d need a mic for each room of the house. She was thinking she might be able to get some blue tooth transmitters. If she could sync them with the wireless router, maybe she could figure a way to make her computer record while she was gone. The smart thing would be to figure a way to make it only record when noise got above a certain threshold.

Her revelry was interrupted by Cindy’s voice behind her. “Miranda!”

She jumped. She didn’t like being surprised. “Oh, hey Cindy.” She hadn’t heard the bell. “What are you doing out of school?”

Randell was looking at Cindy now. Miranda felt briefly angry. She wasn’t sure if it was because Randell had stopped paying attention to her or because he was paying too much attention to Cindy. Whatever.

Cindy picked up a little robotic dog. She brought her voice into a stage whisper. “I skipped out.” She was loud enough that Randell could probably hear her.

“You can’t do that!”

Cindy looked legitimately confused. “But I just did.”

Miranda had to stop and count to ten. “What are you doing here, Cindy?”

“I was looking for you.” She grinned. “This was one of the three most likely places I thought to look for you!”

Was she really that obvious? Miranda was afraid to ask what the other two places were.

Cindy said, “I just wanted to see if you’ve found out anything yet.” She looked excited.

“I just started.” Miranda set down the piezo. “And I have other stuff going on you know.”

Cindy’s face fell. “I’m sorry, do you want to talk about it?” She put her hand on Miranda’s shoulder.

Miranda looked over at Randell, but he’d gone back to his magazine again. “Maybe later.” Cindy’s hand felt good, but she had the impression that people didn’t touch each other in Aught. She felt a little embarrassed.

She leaned down to get another kind of piezo. Cindy’s hand fell away. “I need to go to city records. I’m going there next. Do your dads have a safe deposit box? Like at the bank?”

Cindy frowned, “I haven’t heard about anything like that.” She twisted her hair. “I asked where we came from. They seem as confused about it as I am.”

Miranda looked over at Randell. This actually made her think of an experiment. She grabbed twelve of the larger piezos and brought them to the register.

“Microphones, eh?” Randell smiled knowingly.

Miranda shrugged and bug out her wallet. “Hey Randell, have you met Cindy?”

Cindy smiled and waved.

Randell glanced at her. “Sure. Nice to meet ya.”

Now to test how people perceived things. “And have you met her dads?”

Randell looked for confused for a moment. “The Bauteils? Bill and Tom came in for an HDMI cable a few weeks back.”

Miranda looked at Cindy then back to Randell. “What do you think about Cindy having five dads?”

“Five? I thought there were three.”

“Isn’t that kind of weird?”

Randell put his hand on the register and looked down at his magazine. “Is what weird?”

“Isn’t it weird that anyone has three or four or five dads?”

Randell looked bored. “I don’t know. I guess.”

“With all those guys, don’t you think that qualifies as an alternative family?”

He perked up at the word alternative. “How so?”

Cindy slugged Miranda’s arm. “Stop it.”

“Yeah, why you picking on her family?” Randell waved his hand, like to dismiss Miranda.

“I just …” Miranda shut up. Clearly Randell was operating from a different set of assumptions than she was.

“I’ll take these, please.” She needed to get outside and take some notes.

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

As long as she was home sick she might as well put a few hours into her investigation of her dad and Alice. Adding Alice’s past to the investigation was an exciting angle. She couldn’t imagine why she hadn’t thought of it before.

That gave her pause. Why hadn’t she thought to investigate Alice before?

As she thought about it, she remembered back to when Alice had first arrived in her life. She’d been upset, she’d felt betrayed by Dad, but she hadn’t been suspicious. It was like it had taken the last few years for her to start seeing Alice as she was. It was the same with Dad. It was like he was slowly waking up over the last three years too.

But wait, that wasn’t right either. As she cast her memory further back, Alice had always been weird, complacent and domestic, but it was more recently that her behavior had started to change and the “accidents” had started happening.

Back in her room, she got dressed. Her head felt a little better. She went downstairs and wiggled the mouse on Dad’s computer till it powered up. Dad had made a login for her and Alice, but it had been fairly easy to get through his security.

Breaking into his user account was a skill she’d avoided for a while. It felt dishonest knowing how to circumvent people’s locks, but working around Dad’s rules was tricky. Her only option was to look in his things.

Not that it mattered. Dad never kept anything important on his account. It was like he knew she’d get in.

Firing up Google gave her pause. What would she search for?

First and foremost, Alistair McGee was a weird name. The first few times she’d plugged it into Google, the window wouldn’t reload. The browser just stopped working. She tried restarting the computer, but it still didn’t work. She tried loading a different page, which worked fine. A few weeks later, she tried it again, but she could only fine a business page for a man in Australia.
Since searching for Dad never worked, she was probably stuck with looking up Alice. She wished she could search for Mom, but Dad would never tell Miranda her name. Finding Alice would probably not be any easier. She didn’t even know Alice’s maiden name.

She tried a few searches on the first name Alice connected to news items on escapees from mental institutions. Nothing came up. She tried searching arrest records in Wyoming with the name Alice, but there were hundreds. Lot’s of Alice’s got arrested. She wished she could look through head-shots.

She sighed. For all she knew, Alice had fled from another state and shown up in Wyoming right when Dad had met her.

She erased the record of her logging in and logged out.

The only other option was Dad’s safe.

It was out in the garage. Alice was busy upstairs cleaning the bathroom, so Miranda didn’t have to make any excuses when she went out there.

The safe sat in the corner next to the yard tools, covered in cobwebs. It was greenish metal, about the size of milk crate, it was originally the kind with a turn dial on it.

A couple of towns ago he’d caught her examining it. He’d hired a mover to help him take it away. The two of them strained to get it to the guy’s truck. She’d thought he’d had it thrown out, but it came back a week later with a new electronic keypad and all the brand information welded off.

It’d taken her a few months to realize he’d done this to keep her from researching the make and model. Ironically, it was that realization that made her decide to learn how to break in.

Now, with the safe in the garage, she had some peace to work on it.

On the other side of the safe were a pile of old computer parts. Like Dad was ever going to make something out of them.

Most keypad safes used a four, six or nine numerical sequence. If it was only a four digit sequence, she had a mere 10,000 possibilities, she’d started logging those, but then she found out that there were locks that you could choose the number of digits, which meant Dad could have a four, five, six … all the way up to a nine digit combination. That meant there were were 1,111,110,000 possibilities.

That’s when she switched to guessing what numbers were important to Dad. She would have been disappointed if Dad had used her birthday, or wedding day, or anything obvious like that, but it was frustrating when she’d used up all the numbers she could imagine Dad caring about.

The safe sat there, like it was mocking her. When she tapped the star key, the panel lit up. She was worried that with all her attempts, the battery in the thing would die.

She typed Pi to the fourth, fifth, etc digits. She Tried e and i, but neither worked. Dad was smart.

She’d have to try something else. She draped the cobwebs back over the face of the safe and went back upstairs.

#

Really, she didn’t feel that bad, just exhausted.

The sound of Alice vacuuming came through the floor. It would be a shame to waste a day now that she had school off.

That reminded her she needed to get her class assignments. Maybe she could ask Cindy?

If Alice let her go out, she could maybe look up Alice’s history.

Why hadn’t she thought of that before? Alice had to have had a life before Miranda’s dad met her! If she could find her name, she could look up where she came from. Maybe Alice even had a police history. Time in a mental institution, jail time. Who knew?

What did she know about Alice?

She sat there for five minutes before she admitted to herself that she had a complete blank. She didn’t know Alice’s maiden name, where she came from. The more she thought about it, she realized that she’d never had a single conversation with Alice about her life before dad.

The town where dad had met her was … Laramie, Wyoming. Was Alice from there?

That was as good a place to start as any. She started a new page and wrote Alice at the top, drawing a blank line after her name. Underneath she jotted Laramie, Wyoming.

She paused. The page looked empty and intimidating with nothing on it.

She had a little experience navigating Aught’s city hall. Hopefully that would translate into being able to investigate Alice’s past in another town.

Miranda had tried the same thing with Dad, without much luck, but maybe Alice’s past was less murky.

Dad had never told her where they came from originally. For all she knew she was born in this very town. Whatever he was running from, he hadn’t left any trail. That was probably good if people were after him, but it was frustrating not to know.

She closed the book. Now Cindy wanted her to investigate her mystery. Miranda was starting to think she wasn’t a good at investigating anything.

And what was worse, she still didn’t know what to do with Cindy’s dads. Five dads and the … bird thing.

She lay back on her bed.

Dad said the single most important start to any process was to clear your head and see what was true in that very moment. As she breathed, she ran over what was going on in her own body. She was breathing deeply, her left foot itched, her shirt felt light against her skin, she was a little hungry.

The true things she knew were that Dad had a secret, Alice was possibly homicidally crazy, Cindy had five Dads.

Wait, what was confirmed was that Cindy lived in a house with five men who claimed were her dads … and could transform into canaries. Ugh!

Well, she’d only seen one of them transform.

She wasn’t sure she believed entirely in magic, but say she did. That could be evidence that there were things that straight logic didn’t cover.

Hmmm … If magic was possible, then maybe Dad’s problems were magic in origin too? Maybe dad was running from a cabal of vampires? Werewolves? Maybe an intergalactic space god?

She giggled. Maybe Alice was under a magic spell.

She frowned. That’d explain a lot.

She couldn’t investigate magic, but she could look up records of Alice’s past. She grabbed her notebook and ran down to the living room.

Miranda wasn’t sure why anyone needed to wear an apron to vacuum, but Alice always did. She went and sat on the couch across from Alice.

Alice shut off the vacuum cleaner. “Honey, do you want to watch TV? I can do this later.”

“No thanks, Alice.”

Alice smiled. “Silly bug, call me Mom.” She went to turn on the vacuum cleaner.

“Actually, I was thinking that some fresh air might make me feel better.”

Alice nodded. “That’s a fine idea. Make sure you wear a coat.”

That was easy.

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

She didn’t get any sleep that night. Dad and Alice almost caught her on the stairs because she’d drifted off trying to listen to them. She was scared Alice would get a knife from the kitchen.

Even after Dad and Alice went to bed, she sat at her desk and listened to them sleep.

At six, she listened to Dad get up and leave for work. She went into the hall bathroom and splashed water on her face. Alice hummed a tune down in the kitchen.

Back in her room, she lay down again. Her bed smelled like stress. It probably came from her not sleeping. The apoeccrine glands produced more acidic sweat when the human body was under pressure.

A couple minutes later she noticed the wet places on her pillow, one on either side of her head, which was strange. She’d dried her face in the bathroom. Maybe she’d fell asleep and drooled. It took a few more moments to notice she was crying. An impartial part of her brain noted the tears still rolling down. Something about noticing she was crying made her cry more. She had to stick her face in her pillow because she was afraid she’d start screaming. As it was, a low moan rolled out. It actually made her feel a little better. Just a little.

She should talk to the police, even if she didn’t have proper evidence.

Soon Alice would call her down to breakfast. Miranda dragged herself out of bed and wiped off her face. Her head hurt. Why did crying give her a headache?

In the mirror, her eyes looked puffy and red. Almost out of habit, she looked out the window, across the street, but Cindy’s window was dark.

Her alarm clock showed seven AM.

She panicked. Why hadn’t Alice woken her up? She’d be late for school, even if she skipped a shower. Sitting up made her feel dizzy. The thought of school made her feel more sick. The panic made her head pound a little more.

Actually, her forehead was hot. She felt generally pretty sick. She pulled on a robe over her pajamas and padded downstairs.

Alice wore a blue checkered house dress with her red apron over it. She’d made pancakes. They sat neatly in the middle of the table with syrup in a tiny glass pitcher and a little bowl of peanut butter.

Miranda loved peanut butter on her pancakes. There was even a flower on the table in a clear blue vase. She rubbed her temples.

Why couldn’t Alice act more like a super-villain?

Maybe it was all so effortless for Alice that she just looked innocent. But it was so confusing. The smartest tack seemed to be to log the attempts, just like she’d learned to log information about Dad.

Miranda sat down at the table. “Alice, I’m not feeling very well. I think I should stay home from school.”

“Oh dear.” Alice came over and put the back of her hand on Miranda’s forehead.

Her hand felt cool. Something about the action made Miranda want to cry again.

“You do feel a little warm.” Alice’s voice was short with concern.

She leaned away from Alice’s hand. She couldn’t think of Alice as a person. She had to be ready to stop Alice at all times. She wished she had a video camera. Maybe she could catch Alice doing … something.

Alice leaned across her and spread the peanut butter carefully on Miranda’s pancakes.

She’d bring evidence to the police and they’d … What would they do? Haul Alice off?

Why did everything have to be so complicated? She wanted to protect Dad, but not hurt Alice, she just wanted Alice to stop.

“You should definitely stay home today. I’ll call the school.” She touched Miranda’s shoulder and went around the corner to pick up the phone.

Miranda took the knife and the little bowl of peanut butter and spread more on the top pancake. She couldn’t help but smile. Alice always whipped the peanut butter with a fork before putting it out, so it was easier to spread. Maybe Miranda could try conditioning Alice, use some of Dad’s meditation techniques to change Alice’s behavior until everything was okay. Maybe. Maybe Dad would be willing to include Alice in their sessions.

Alice came back in. “That’s all taken care of.” She turned back to scrubbing the stove.

Miranda poured syrup on her pancakes. Now was as good a time to start as any. “Oh, Alice?”

“Yes, dear?”

“What do you like to do with your time?”

Alice tilted her head, and raised one eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

“I’m just curious what you enjoy most.” Miranda put her hands together in a way that she hoped looked thoughtful. “I mean, do you have time to do anything fun while doing all this housework?” Maybe Alice’s homicidal urges were because she felt trapped in her domestic life.

Alice laughed. “Oh, I’m always doing what I like to do. I love taking care of you and your father.” Whenever Alice mentioned Dad, she never called him Alistair, just “your father.”

“But isn’t there anything else you’d rather be doing?”

Alice put down the sponge. “Oh course not.”

Miranda tried a different tack. “But what did you want to do with your life before you met Dad?”

Alice came over to the table. She started cutting Miranda’s pancake into little squares. “Oh, nothing else.” She glanced over at Miranda’s head. “Look at this hair young lady. You need a trim.”

“Didn’t you want to go to college or something?”

Alice put down the knife and fork and took a piece of cloth from her apron pocket.

She pulled it taught and rolled it into a tight tube. “No, no. I’ve always wanted to take care of you and your father.”

She twisted the tube into a thick thread. She took Miranda’s hair and pulled it back, tied it with the cloth. “Your hair is so pretty. But you shouldn’t cover your face.”

Miranda frowned. “But you didn’t know us until a few years ago.”

Alice blinked. “No, of course. I mean I was looking for someone like you and your dad, to take care of.” She grinned. “Well, this house won’t clean itself. I should go put the laundry in. Thanks for the chat. I’ll finish the kitchen later.”

“OK.” Miranda felt a little deflated. Alice would be a harder puzzle than she thought. Maybe she’d have to investigate Alice’s past too.

Her head hurt again.