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

They didn’t speak for the rest of dinner, but while Miranda was cleaning the dishes Dad came and put his hands on her shoulders. “We need to meditate later.”

That was it. Same as always, no explanation, no apology.

She didn’t want to speak to him, but she nodded. He just stood there till she turned. He looked distracted.

She thought about the ripped up card in the garbage. She almost blurted out about the bird and Cindy, just to blow his mind.

Dad had told Alice to put the garbage out in the can in the backyard, even though it was mostly empty. Miranda made a mental note to sneak out later to get it. Why was Dad against her using her brain? He hated his job with the grocery store. She didn’t understand why he didn’t just get a job that used his brains.

“Come on.” He patted her shoulder and left.

She dried her hands. Dad said, “Alice, could you finish the dishes?”

“Of course dear.”

Miranda hadn’t quite worked out her feelings on feminism, but still, Alice’s complacence sometimes set her teeth on edge.

Dad was already on the couch in the living room. He’d turned off the TV and the overhead fan, so Alice’s dish-washing noises were clear. Miranda wasn’t sure why Alice didn’t need to meditate, but Dad never invited her. Alice seemed happy all the time anyway. Maybe dumb people didn’t need to clear their heads.

Miranda felt guilty for thinking that.

Dad said, “You’re frowning. Come sit down and clear your head.”

“Sorry.” She wasn’t sorry, but she sat next to him anyway. She quickly realized she was forcing her eyes shut, so she relaxed her face.

Clearing your head was easier said than done. Her mind was awash with thoughts about Cindy and her too-many dads and the possibility of magic. What was a logical explanation? Did they have a projector? Was it a trick?

Dad grunted, and Miranda took a deep breath. When she set all that aside, her head flooded with how she needed to plan for the next week. Alice’s volunteer group was having a day off next Wednesday and Miranda might have to skip school to keep an eye on her. At least her dad would be at work–

“Clear your head, Miranda.”

Crap. She took another deep breath and thought about a candle. Dad had said imagining a candle flame gave her brain something to do while she relaxed. She liked to imagine a big white taper candle, like the kind dad had plunged into her fifth birthday cake. They had been on the road and he couldn’t find real birthday candles, but she liked the single big one better anyway. She forced herself not to smile.

Apparently her face looked relaxed enough, because Dad finally started his meditation routine. “Okay, as you breathe, imagine a cube. What is the cube made of?”

She had to come up with a new material each time he asked this, anything she wanted as long as it was a real substance. “Glass.”

“What kind of glass?”

She’d been researching and making lists of materials since they started this meditation. “Pyrex.”

“Which is?” She knew Dad knew, but he always wanted her to be specific.

“Borosilicate glass.” She smiled.

“Clear your head.” Dad sounded stern, but pleased. “What are the dimensions of the cube?”

“Three by three by three.” Three cubed, the perfect cube.

“Inches? Meters?”

“Centimeters.”

She swore she could hear the smile in Dad’s voice. “Good. Maintain your breathing, in slow calm words, describe the qualities of this cube.”

The image of Cindy Bauteil’s dad turning into a bird flooded her head again, but she relaxed into her breathing. “The density of borosilicate glass at these dimensions is…” It took a moment to remember the density of the material and calculate for the size. “Two point two grams.”

“Keep breathing.” She heard Dad tap into his laptop to check her answer.

They did physics every two days, math every other day, biology three times a week. He often used their meditation sessions to review what they’d learned.

“Okay, I’m going to count down from ten, breathe with each number, and then we’re done for tonight.”

She had to admit. Doing these meditations made her feel closer to Dad. It was the most relaxed she ever felt. Learning new things was fun, but she wondered what the point of it all was. She was years ahead of everyone else in her school and yet Dad freaked out at her looking at college.

Chapter 2 illustration

“Ten … Nine …” Dad was breathing steadily with her. His cheat book rustled. “What would you use three by three blocks of Borosilicate glass for?”

That threw her. Dad usually just made her memorize things, not do things with them. “Um, you could build a flame retardant wall out of them.”

“Eight … Seven …” Sometimes he snuck in a surprise question.

She imagined the wall of blocks. “They’d make good toys.”

She swore she heard Dad smile. “Good. Visualize a glass cube in your head. Think about how it would feel in your hand.”

She could. She started thinking about how various intersects would cut the shape and what the resulting shapes would be. Quadrilateral. Pentagon. Pyramid.

Dad would be angry if he knew she was playing with the shape in her head, so she stopped.

#

Later, after Dad and Alice went to bed, Miranda found half of the card in the garbage outside and half in the garbage in the garage. She was exhausted, but before she went to sleep, she meticulously taped the card back together and hid it in her secret drawer.

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

She knew she was hyperventilating, but her breathing exercises weren’t working. She couldn’t bring herself to look through the spyglass again. She thought she might sit there forever, freaking out, but she automatically re-wrapped her spyglass and packed it away. Once her breathing slowed down, she looked for neighbors and stumbled into her house and up the stairs to her room.

Had anyone else seen that? Was she going crazy? People didn’t just turn into birds. The physics alone made it impossible.
She didn’t even want to think about the biology.

Her Einstein poster looked disappointed again. She felt embarrassed for even thinking such a thing had happened.

At least her room felt right. She’d loved this room since the first day they’d moved here. It had a closet and built-in drawers. Lots of places to hide things.

The spyglass stuck on something when she shoved it underneath her bed, so she left it half out and slid her notes under it. She should have written up what she saw, but if she wrote it down, did that mean she had to admit it was real?

It was clearly just a trick of the light, or maybe she’d hallucinated because she was dehydrated.

She got up to get a glass of water. The edge of the spyglass still stuck out from under the bed. Dad knew she had it, he’d helped her design the lens frame, but she made a point of only letting him see her use it for stargazing. She couldn’t help herself from looking out the front window. Fortunately Cindy’s shade was drawn.

Relief ran through her. Who knows what else she’d see if she kept looking.

She fell back on her bed and stared at the ceiling, counting the stars pasted there, each in the sequence of primes.

2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.

She and Dad had infused putty with zinc sulfide and strontium aluminate from school and formed little stars that she’d glued to her ceiling. Alice had helped bake them. It made Miranda feel more grounded in reality knowing exactly how she’d made them.

19, 23, 29.

Later tonight her ceiling would glow with a galaxy of little stars.

She’d taken particular care to make sure the display was accurate to the major astronomical clusters in the Virginia sky. Ursa Major was reflected in the mirror on her desk.

31, 37, 41.

If a person turned into a tiny bird, where would all their extra mass go? She shook her head.

The front door shut downstairs, and Alice called up, “I’m home again, sweetie.” Alice said the exact same thing every day. Her repetitiveness was usually annoying, but all Miranda wanted at the moment was to collect normal things.

Alice called, “Dinner soon!”

She forced herself to put Cindy out of her head. The canary had probably flown into the room just as Cindy’s dad had walked out of frame.

“Kay.” She heard the shake in her own voice.

She couldn’t let herself get distracted like this. What did she need to take care of now that Alice was home?

Alice hummed something downstairs, occasionally she sang a word or two, but Miranda couldn’t make them out. If only Alice would act more evil, it made Miranda doubt the murder attempts were real.

Just like the bird?

Maybe she was looking at the data about Alice wrong? Alice was never depressed or moody, she never argued, she never complained, even the three separate times Dad had suddenly insisted they pull up and leave town.

The garage door rumbled and she heard the door to the garage open. Alice called out, “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes, dear.”

Dad sounded tired. “Thanks, hon.”

#

Dinner was awkward. She, Dad and Alice barely fit around the tiny table in the kitchen, making it hard to avoid the uncomfortable silence. Dad was so stressed these days. Dinner conversation was particularly bad on Sundays, when Dad couldn’t even ask how school was that day. He seemed afraid to ask about anything else. Miranda picked at the thin metal around the Formica table. The beef stew was getting cold on her plate.

The heat from the stove felt nice, but Miranda sometimes worried she would catch her hair on fire from the burners behind her.

Maybe Cindy’s window was some sort of hologram. Miranda wished she could bounce her theories off Dad, but then she’d have to admit to spying.

She and Dad used to spend dinner arguing over scientific articles he’d xeroxed at the library, or they’d push their dinner plates to the center of the table and solve math puzzles together on butcher paper. Especially since they’d moved to Aught, Dad had gotten increasingly quiet, and his temper flares had gotten worse.

They’d lived in seventeen towns in the last thirteen years. The only reason they’d stayed in Aught for nearly a whole year was because of her math teacher, Mr. Hanson.

That had been rough.

Mr. Hanson called in Dad. Miranda sat terrified and silent. He said Miranda looked like she was about to have a nervous breakdown. Dad listened and politely told Mr. Hanson they’d work it out as a family. Alice said nothing. Dad drove them home looking scared and guilty.

That night he made a deal with Miranda, they’d stop traveling if she spent twice as much time on their exercises and tried to act normal.

Miranda wanted to blame Dad’s increasing stress on Alice. Certainly her (potentially) homicidal stepmother was part of the problem, but he refused to acknowledge Alice’s weird behavior. He seemed stressed and distracted even when Alice wasn’t around. Maybe something new had happened. Maybe he’d say it was time to run again. The thought made her chest feel cold.
Miranda’s past was wrapped into a category she called The Big Secret. She wasn’t allowed to ask about it.

That didn’t keep her from writing up countless theories in her notebooks.

  • 1.) Dad is running from the mob.
  • 2.) Dad is an international spy.
  • 3.) Dad committed a horrible crime.

She’d collected hundreds of potential clues, but still hadn’t gotten around the walls Dad put up around their past. As long as she could remember, Dad had been running from something. She was pretty sure that something had to do with her real mom.

She remembered things really well. It was just how her brain worked. She could even, just barely, remember being born, but Mom was a total blank. Her real mom. She remembered being held, a blurry face. The more she tried to remember, the blurrier the face became. Sometimes she felt like she had to look at her own memories through her peripheral vision, just so it wouldn’t run away.

Dad’s response to questions about it was always somewhere between silence and anger. It obviously hurt him when she asked, but he wouldn’t say why.

She didn’t want to cause him pain, but she desperately wanted to know where she came from. She once paid nine ninety five to a site to trace his name. As far as the internet was concerned, he didn’t exist. In the house there were no pictures of him from more than three years ago. In photographs he looked haunted, always looking off to the side, like he was waiting for an attack.

If only Dad would tell her what had happened to Mom, or where Miranda was born, why they moved so much, anything. Her whole inclination toward the scientific method of investigation formed around trying to figure out Dad.

There were no pictures of Miranda, except school photos. Alice sometimes suggested they take more pictures of her, but Dad always said no. Alice never pushed it.

There wasn’t documentation of Dad and Alice’s marriage. Miranda had called fourteen town halls. For all she knew, their marriage was just a story they’d made up.

Dad looked up from his plate. “Did you do anything fun today?” The usual fear-look crossed his face.

She couldn’t tell him about spying on the Bauteils, especially about people turning into birds.

She was still searching for something to change the subject when Alice’s face brightened, “Oh! Miranda, mail came for you!” She pulled the college postcard from the front pocket of her apron.

Ugh! If she didn’t know better, she’d think Alice had waited till now on purpose.

Dad jumped up from his seat like a fighter coming out into the ring. “Who’d be writing you?” Miranda leaned to grab the card, but he reached over her before she could.

He just stood there, read it for much longer then a postcard should take. He read the front, flipped it over and read the back.

He looked at the front again. “Why is a college sending you an orientation notice?” Worry lines divided his forehead.

Why did Dad have to see it before she could present her case? Miranda looked at the floor. “It’s a… Mr. Hanson said my grades were so high I could probably go to college early.”

Dad said nothing, just stared at the card.

“It’s only community college.” She should have probably just stopped talking, but she couldn’t stop herself. “I looked into it, I can easily ace the SATs and ACT and Mrs. Jenkins would put in a word for me and I could take the bus and I’ll be fifteen next year…”

Dad went back to his chair. “What have I always said?”

Miranda looked at Alice, but she just smiled vacantly. Miranda said, “You said I have to keep up with my training and…”

“And what?”

“And don’t stand out, don’t try to be special.” Dad didn’t say anything, so she said, “You always say you just want me to be normal.” She glanced at Alice. “All of us.”

“To at least act normal.”

Alice had gone back to eating. Miranda pushed her plate to the center of the table. “You never say why. Why is it so important to be normal?” She heard her voice rising, so she pitched it down. It never paid to get into a screaming match with her father, he sometimes got really loud. “I’m not normal. I’m really smart. You say that every day. Why have me learning all this stuff if you want me to be normal?”

The card started to tear in his hands. “I… it’s important, Miranda, I can’t say why yet, but it’s really important that you don’t push this.” He looked down at the card, and sadness ran across his face. “I’m trying to give you everything I can, but you’re not ready yet.”

He wouldn’t look at her while he tore up the card. She stole another look at Alice, as if Alice would ever give any support.

Alice polished the blade of her butter knife, as if she was sharpening it. “Whatever your father says, dear.”

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

  • Tom Bauteil
  • Bill Bauteil
  • John Bauteil
  • ??? Bauteil
  • ??? Bauteil

She still had to figure out the last two dad’s first names. She thought again and crossed out all the last names:

  • Tom Bauteil
  • Bill Bauteil
  • John Bauteil
  • ??? Bauteil
  • ??? Bauteil

A good investigator didn’t presume until she had data. She’d only confirmed Cindy’s last name for sure. She’d done a quick google check, but couldn’t find any references to the Bauteils. Maybe she could look for paperwork at the library and city hall. She could also go through their trash.

Cindy had five dads. She’d even talked about it in school, but no one acted like that was weird.

Dads. Five. Miranda was pretty clear on how reproduction worked and there should be a mother in there somewhere.

She drew another line through their last names.

Cindy just sat there brushing her hair.

Was this what Dad meant by “acting normal?” People did some pretty boring things, even the weird ones. No one in Aught was interested in solving math puzzles or plotting town statistics. Any town with a name as weird as “Aught” should certainly have some colorful characters, but Aught was perfect for Dad. Folks here were allergic to weird.

Well, maybe except for the Bauteils.

Aught was certainly the smallest town Miranda had lived in. According to the census, Aught was the sixth smallest town in Virginia. Not the kind of place where even two dads would be accepted. Some people still hung confederate flags.

Miranda’s history teacher, Mr. Walter, had replaced Ms. Basket. Ms. Basket had left town when a rumor started that she had “The Gay.”
With five Bauteil dads, it seemed someone might eventually decide “The Gay” was happening in the Bauteil house.

Cindy kept at her hair, fifty strokes left, fifty strokes right.

Miranda used a ballpoint pen to jot in the homemade investigator book. Room bare except for pictures, single dresser. Sitting on bed (UNCONFIRMED–invisible underneath window.)

She was surprised Cindy didn’t have pictures of dragons or unicorns. She seemed the type, like the kind of girl who didn’t dig through the woods or get her pink dresses dirty. Miranda wasn’t sure why she watched Cindy, but it was starting to bug her that she thought about Cindy so much.

It’d be cool to attach a mirror to the spyglass so she could also look up the street without being seen. She started sketching in her mind a mounting device and an angle adjuster.
There wasn’t much to observe in Aught. The town had exactly thirty-two streets. When they’d poured over zoning books for fun, Miranda’s dad said there were thirty-four, but he’d tracked the county lines incorrectly. She’d pointed that out, but sometimes Dad didn’t listen so well.

Across the street a Bauteil dad opened the living room curtains. A moment later he cranked open a window, the kind that opened outward like bay doors. She made a note in her book. Bill, maybe? He had light hair.

Maybe she could pretend she was taking census information. Then she could get the last two dad’s names.

The summer wind made the bush branches itch her arms. She scratched while she noted that the dad at the window was definitely Bill. He was the dad who took Cindy to school every day. Miranda had the most notes on him. He was at least six feet tall with a low body-fat index and blond hair cut like a businessman from a TV show. She estimated he was in his mid-thirties.

She flipped to the back of the book where she kept some basic notes on her own dad. Now he had a properly weird name, Alistair. Though he even hid that from everyone. He called himself Al.

As stressful as it had been to be on the run her whole life, she hated to admit that she sort of missed moving. It was hard to make friends with people in Aught when she was trying so hard to remember Dad’s latest story of where they came from. She’d told it so often that she was starting to forget the details of her real life.

But for all their stories of normalcy, Miranda couldn’t hide her freakish brain. And Dad was far too tiny to be unloading trucks. Even the women dock workers were bigger than him. Miranda didn’t know why Dad didn’t take a better job. He was certainly smart enough. How was that normal? He didn’t even like physical work, and Alistair was a lousy name for a dockworker anyway.

She flipped back to the pages on the Bauteils. Dad still grimaced when Miranda asked about Mom. She’d learned to either drop it or strap herself in for a rant. She wished she at least had a clear image of Mom’s face. The worst times were when she had something she needed to talk to a woman about. She’d just started having her period. Alice must have noticed the laundry, because she left a box of pads on Miranda’s bed. Dad had awkwardly tried to talk to Miranda about it, but she’d run up to her room. Later she looked up information online on Dad’s computer.

There was something Miranda and Cindy had in common. No mom. Miranda made another note in her book.

No one asked Miranda why she collected all this data. If they did, she would say, “Through the thoughtful collection and study of information we take control of our own lives.” She’d practiced saying that in the mirror.

She let out a breath. If Dad caught her spying, she’d be in so much trouble. She corrected herself, investigating. But no one noticed or asked.

Sometimes she wished someone would ask.

Cindy was still brushing her hair. Did she do anything else? Miranda noted the time and estimated number of strokes.

Around a hundred and twenty so far. Miranda couldn’t understand anyone doing more than ten strokes max, both sides.

The setting sun was low enough to create glare in Miranda’s spyglass. She’d have to quit soon anyway. Cindy finally finished and hopped off the bed to set the brush on the dresser. Her hair kind of flew a little bit in the wind, probably lifted by electro-static charge.

Miranda noted the brush must have metal bristles set in a rubber base.

Cindy’s hair was kind of golden blond brown–it bugged Miranda that there wasn’t a technical term for the color. It had a little bit of a green tint that came from hard water and copper pipes. She made another note. Still, the green matched the brown nicely. Miranda wished for long straight hair, even if it was a little green.

miranda

Cindy sat on the bed again and, as if on cue, Bill came into the room. He was holding an empty golden cage.

She hadn’t noticed the cage before. Miranda made a note.

Cindy was saying something. An audio spying device would be useful. She’d seen plans for bug transmitters in science magazines in the library, but Dad didn’t have money for the parts. Maybe Dad would let her try babysitting.

Bill-Dad and Cindy were probably talking about something boring anyway.

The sun’s glare made her squint. She focused one last time.

Bill set the cage on Cindy’s bed and kissed her on the forehead. Cindy put out her finger.

Bill jumped at her hand and folded upon himself, compressing until he was a little yellow bird in the air. As he landed on Cindy’s finger, the single functioning part of Miranda’s brain identified him as serinus canaria, a canary.

cindy & bill

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

Miranda searched for the card, but it wasn’t in any of Alice’s usual places. She counted down from ten and huffed out a breath. She’d look again later.

At least with Alice gone, she had maybe a half hour or so for her new hobby.

Cindy Bauteil.

She dug out the spyglass from under her bed and ran downstairs and out into the front yard.

Dad had said having hobbies was healthy. “Normalizing.”

Once she was on the front lawn, she looked back at the house. At least that was perfect. She’d always wanted to live in a two-story house. She loved having her own bedroom. It didn’t hurt that their house was on the corner. She had an easy view of three other houses from her favorite hiding place.

After checking for prying neighbors, she climbed into the juniper bushes in front of their yard. Dad had never trimmed them, so they grew high and wide to block out everyone else on Huntington Street. Genus juniperus were scratchy and smelled like disinfectant, but were also thick so no one could observe her while she sat inside, nearly perfectly in their center. She’d measured.

Most importantly, Dad or Alice wouldn’t see her if they came home unexpectedly.

Dad was paranoid about a lot of things. He was constantly drilling into Miranda’s head: she had to be careful and observant, she had to be clearheaded and ready. The only bonus of being on the run her whole life was she was prepared for anything.

She let out another breath as she unpacked her spyglass. It was nice to relax for a few minutes.

Dad wanted her to practice “being normal,” whatever that meant. What was normal about studying subjects way above other kids her age? Not that she minded learning, she loved it, but he also wanted her to try to fit in as much as possible. He had all these rules about how she should act in school. This meant no weird friends, no acting weird.

No thinking weird. He actually said that.

The Bauteils’ tiny house came in and out of focus in the crappy thrift-store spyglass. Miranda had to keep adjusting it.

Cindy’s was the only single level house on the whole street, and it was about half the width of the house next door. That in and of itself was kind of weird. She made a note in her notebook.

A shape moved in Cindy’s room. Miranda refocused.

Cindy came into view and shut the door behind her. She was a little shorter than Miranda. Blonde. In the same grade, so probably roughly her age.

Her room had no posters. The walls had small, framed pictures, but the spyglass wasn’t powerful enough to see what was in them.

At least the room wasn’t pink like most of Cindy’s dresses.

She grabbed something from her dresser and plopped onto the bed. Coming down so hard, she bounced a little.

Miranda wrote, “Cindy Bauteil” in her investigator book. Bauteil sounded French, but it was actually German. It meant “part,” which seemed like a weird last name. She made another note and wrote CONFIRMED next to Cindy’s name. She’d seen it written in the school office when she’d gone in one time to offer tutoring.

Under Cindy’s name she wrote:

  • Tom Bauteil
  • Bill Bauteil
  • John Bauteil

She still had to figure out the last two dad’s first names. She’d done a quick google check, but couldn’t find any references to the Bauteils. Maybe she could look for paperwork at the library and city hall. She could also go through their trash.

Oh, right, dads. Plural. Cindy had five dads.

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

Miranda McGee was pretty sure her step-mom was trying to kill her dad. She’d logged each of Alice’s four attempts in detail in one of her handmade investigation journals.

Possible attempts, all unsuccessful. So far.

There was the incident in their townhouse in California, with the skates on the stairs.

None of us even skate. Where did they come from?

There was the time in Idaho when Dad had been driving home and the steering wheel had mysteriously come off in Dad’s hands.

!!!

And the two times, Kansas and Colorado, where Dad had gotten ‘food poisoning’.

Stew, twice. Both times while I was away.

She closed the journal and adjusted the pages. It’d been easy to drill tiny holes and thread them with wire bent with needle-nosed pliers, but she couldn’t get the stitches tight enough to make the book stiff.

The smell of potatoes and pepper drifted up from downstairs and tickled Miranda’s nose. It was almost dinnertime.

She set aside her homework–the extra credit paper on Francis Bacon wasn’t due for two weeks, but she’d decided to get it done by Monday anyway so she wouldn’t have to think about it. She’d told Penny Mosely that and Penny had laughed at her. It was becoming painfully obvious that other fourteen year-olds, especially ones who hadn’t skipped a grade, didn’t have her work ethic.

She hadn’t quite cracked the teenage social code. Why did kids make fun of her t-shirt of Einstein riding a bicycle across the galaxy? The cool kids wore tops that showed off their bellies. How was that better? Kids said there was something wrong with Miranda’s height (five feet two,) Miranda’s hair (brown, too curly,) or Dad’s job (unloading trucks at the grocery store, but really none of their business.)

Other kids probably didn’t have homemade scientific equipment all over their floor, or posters of famous scientists on their walls.

She put the notebook on her desk and knocked aside paintbrushes and measuring tools in the center drawer. She slid open the secret compartment she’d built into the bottom. Inside was her flat pouch of poison testers.

The goofy pouch looked lopsided. She hadn’t quite figured out sewing. When she glanced over her shoulder, she swore the poster of Lynn Margulis looked disappointed. Paul Erdős looked stern. Even with his tongue stuck out, Einstein still looked a little cross.

She shook her head. Just a figment of her imagination, of course. More than anything else, Dad always warned her against magical thinking.

No fairies, no magic, no God, no gods.

The only other poster was of a pony. It looked neither disappointed nor supportive. She blushed at the thought of people knowing she had something so childish. If anyone asked, she’d just explain it was simply for anatomical study. She was thinking about becoming a vet.

Not that she’d ever had anyone over.

Her bedroom door stuck as she closed it behind her. The melodic sound of Alice humming came from the floor below. Alice would be easier to investigate if she’d act a little more evil. Scientific rigor compelled Miranda to admit there was not yet solid evidence to file a report with the police.

Yet Dad wasn’t gullible. Honestly, there was a decent chance he was medically paranoid. He and Miranda had been on the run most, if not all of the fourteen years she’d been alive. She’d never lived in the same town for more than a year.

And yet Dad seemed blind to Alice’s attempts on his life, no matter what she did. Miranda had tried to point out the weird “accidents” over the three years since Alice had joined them. Dad either got angry or just laughed it off. He didn’t act like he was dopey in love with Alice. He didn’t seem very close to her at all, but he acted like they had a great relationship and spoke of her only as if she were the most doting wife ever.

Miranda wove down the stairway to avoid the steps that squeaked. Alice was not by nature a suspicious person, but Miranda didn’t want to give her reason to be on guard. Alice herself made disturbingly little noise while she cooked, so it was hard to sneak up on her when she wasn’t singing.

Downstairs was quiet. She ducked through the living room past the threadbare couch and chairs that had come with the house. The room was dark because Dad never let them open the curtains.

The kitchen was open on both ends, but she approached through the dining room so the carpet would mask her steps. The dining room didn’t have a table, so the carpet was covered in papers from when she and Dad had been sketching hyperbolic curves. The papers were starting to curl with age. It’d been a month since they’d done anything fun together.

The stove and refrigerator were on the other side of the kitchen, so there was a seventy-five percent chance Alice would be facing that way at any given time.

She peeked around the archway. Alice was facing the stove. Alice was tall for a woman, at least five eleven. Five inches taller than Dad. She towered over the stove, dusting some spice into a pot. Her pink apron had ruffles around the edges and was an almost perfect complimentary color to her blue dress. Alice’s short blond bob made Miranda jealous. Miranda’s own kinky dark hair only behaved because she left it long.

Since Alice had come into Miranda’s life she’d never been mean or cold, but every time she spoke it grated on Miranda’s ears. Even without Miranda’s suspicions about her step-mom’s homicidal intentions, Alice was… just too nice. She looked like a cross between Barbie and a 50s TV mom. But homicidal. Maybe.

Maybe Miranda was the crazy one. Still, she built her schedule around keeping herself between Alice and Dad as much as possible. Days like today were easiest, when Dad was at the grocery store unloading boxes and Alice was busy with the house. Any day she couldn’t completely track Alice’s movements, she double-checked the car and the house and the food.

Alice clicked the heat dial to low and put a lid over the pot. Miranda ducked away when Alice turned toward the sink. The water ran for a moment and Miranda waited four beats before sticking her head back around the corner. Alice pulled a full trash bag from the can under the sink. Perfect. Alice was predictable. At least that made Miranda’s job easier.

Alice hefted the bag and stepped around the stove to open the back door, presumably she’d take it to the trashcans next to the garage. Miranda had about sixty seconds.

The door shut behind Alice and Miranda quickly crossed to the stove and lifted the two pot lids. Ugh, beef stew and boiled potatoes. Potatoes were hard to lace with poison, so she focused on the stew. She replaced the potato lid and set the stew lid on a potholder.

From her poison testing kit, she pulled a small vial and skimmed some hot stew off the top. The bubbling gravy burned and she stuck her finger in her mouth. The taste wasn’t distinctly sweet, which probably ruled out ethylene glycol.

The back porch creaked. Alice was fast today! She pushed open the back door before Miranda had a chance to run.

“Miranda!” Alice always smiled. She put her hands on her hips in mock disapproval.

Miranda was terrible at lying, but she tried to smile, “Just testing the stew.” She drew out the sound of the “e” in testing to make it sound a little like tasting. With the hand that didn’t have the poison kit, she returned the lid.

“Well, you’ll have to wait for dinner!” Alice made sweeping motions with her hands. “Scoot!”

With the poison testing kit in the back waistband of her pants, Miranda started to back out into the living room.

“Oh, Miranda dear?”

Miranda froze. The vial of hot stew burned in her hand. “I should get back to my paper, Alice.”

Alice waggled her finger. “Silly bug, you can call me Mom.” Alice said that nearly every day, but Miranda never responded.

Alice didn’t seem bothered by it. She didn’t even wait for an answer, like she’d already forgotten. “You received a post card. From a college!”

The college notice, it came! But crap, she’d hoped to intercept the card before Dad or Alice saw it. She needed to prep Dad to the idea of her going to college early.

“Oh? Could I see it?” Maybe Alice would forget the card. She forgot the weirdest things.

Alice patted her apron. “I don’t think I have it on me.”

Miranda slid the vial of stew in her back pocket. “Okay, but I’d like to see it before dinner, please.”

Alice smiled and nodded. Life with Alice hadn’t immediately been bad. She loved to do housework and cook and all the other things Miranda saw women do on TV. All the things she and Dad hated to do.

Back in her room, Miranda poured the stew over a silver spoon she’d found at a garage sale. She counted to three before wiping it off. The spoon was still the same color. Good. Korean royalty used to eat with silver chopsticks because the sticks would turn black when exposed to poisonous mushrooms. Later she’d replace Dad’s spoon so she could observe him while he ate.

Next she took a strip of litmus paper from the bag and trailed it in the sauce. It immediately turned purple, which meant the stew was neither hugely base nor acidic. That ruled out a lot of poisons.

She would have loved to perform the Marsh test, combining the stew with hydrogen sulfide in the presence of hydrochloric acid. If it turned yellow, arsenic. But she didn’t have access to the chemicals.

Dinner appeared to be safe.

Alice called up stairs, “Honey, I’m going to run to the corner store for some bread, be right back.”

Miranda yelled down, “Did you find that card?” But the door banged shut.

She let out a breath. Constantly trying to out-think Alice was exhausting.