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The Curious Investigations of Miranda McGee – Chapter Eight – Part 6

She kept the photo of Dad and Alice and the photo of herself as a little girl. Strangely, the picture of her hadn’t changed.

Her only option was to fold the two photos and stick them in her back pocket. She held onto the flashlight too.

Back in the kitchen, she got a glass of water and sat at the dinner table. At least the water still worked.

She needed her notepad. She needed a way to track what was changing. She needed to track what happened before things changed.

A hollow feeling went through her. What if the things she wrote down changed too? How would she track anything?

Her eyes hurt, so she rubbed them. She couldn’t worry about that now. She’d have to do the best she could with what she had.

She felt a return of her ability to think clearly. She’d change her clothes, get what she needed and go to the hospital and make sure Dad was okay. If he was well enough, she’d get him to tell her what he knew. It was a plan.

The flashlight made the hallway look tight and claustrophobic. She moved slowly, holding her hand to the wall. She had a horrible feeling that she shouldn’t look in the living room. The flashlight made the house look worse. Everything became darker around the corners of her light and now she could only see inside a small circle.

Her vision was worse with the light off, but she was so worried about the living room, she preferred the darkness. She actually closed her eyes against the light from the thin window next to the door. The room smelled like copper.

The stairs creaked and she had the ridiculous thought that she’d wake up Dad and then be in trouble. Reality hit her again, so hard she had to sit on the stair and cry.

The copper smell was worse upstairs. She wiped her hands on her pants and got up. She should just get new clothes, her notebook, maybe her spyglass and get out of there. Maybe her toothbrush. Was she was ever coming back?

The carpet in front of her door crunched under her sneaker.

She froze. The smell of copper was overwhelming.

She almost turned on the flashlight. She almost ran back down the stairs and out. Instead she held her breath and pushed the door open. She hopped over the dry pool on the carpet.

Her room was the brightest in the house so far and it took her eyes a few moments to adjust. She leaned her back against the door and stared at the window till her room was clear. Maybe Dad had picked this house because it didn’t get very much light. Her whole life he’d wanted to keep them in shadows.

She had the sudden fear that something would happen in the hospital and no one would be able to reach her. She should grab what she needed and get out of here.

Her room was still split into piles. Take. Leave. The spy glass was where she’d left it.

Of course it was, why would Dad or Alice move anything.

Alice, she must be so scared.

Miranda sat on the floor. It would be easier to hate Alice, but she wasn’t able to do it. Would the police would let her see Alice?

She flicked on the flashlight and shined it at the door. Underneath it was a shallow parabola of dark brown.

Dad had been at her door when Alice stabbed him.

The Curious Investigations of Miranda McGee – Chapter Eight – Part 5

The key was still hidden next to the front porch and the police hadn’t put any extra locks on the door. The furnace must have been switched off, because the house was colder than the world outside. The lights didn’t work either. Maybe they shut off the electricity to prevent fires.

She didn’t believe in ghosts, so she shouldn’t have felt so scared. Though with all that had happened in the last four days, who knew what was true anymore. She rubbed her arms to get her blood flowing. She forced herself to walk through the darkness to the kitchen, not really sure what she was doing. The house was so silent that she could hear her own breathing and heart as if they were amplified. Putting her hand along the kitchen wall, she found the door to the garage. She’d come to get a change of clothes, but something drew her to Dad’s safe.

The garage didn’t feel as gloomy after walking through the cold house. The light bleeding through the sides of the garage and the small side window gave everything a warm glow.

The car sat where they’d left it, half packed with Dad and Alice’s things. She’d expected it to be gone. Dad was gone, so shouldn’t the car be? She didn’t know if she should leave the things in there or unpack them? We’re they still leaving after Dad got out of the hospital? She didn’t even want to think about the possibility that Dad wasn’t getting out of the hospital.

The safe was crowded by the back of the car. Dad must have backed it in for easier packing. He obviously didn’t want to pack outside.

The safe didn’t look any different, but something made her think now it would be less impossible to crack. Why would she think that? There was no good reason, after trying to crack it for the last few years. Nothing had changed.

She wished she had her notebook. It was upstairs in her room. She thought about getting it, but something made her wait. She pushed the thought aside. Ever since she’d come into the house, she’d been avoiding her room.

The keypad lit up when she tapped it. She’d tried irrational numbers, sequencing four digit numbers from 0000 to 9999, she’d given up on sequential numbers when she realized the key code could be up to nine digits. She’d tried all the birthdays and anniversaries she could think of, even the dates of important times in history. Dad had stumped her.

It was particularly irritating that her scientific method had failed. Dad had always taught her to be methodical, never take short cuts. Dad had given her all the tools to solve the puzzle of this safe, but still she couldn’t beat it.

The lights on the pad timed out. She got up and looked around the garage. She thought about taking the hoe and beating the stupid thing.

That made her smile. That wasn’t very logical or scientific. She felt like she’d changed a lot in the last three days. Hopefully for the better. The smile faded.

The safe sat in the corner, like it was stoically mocking her. Stupid thing.

She came over to it again and crouched down to tap on the keypad. It lit up, its glow illuminating her fingers.

Dad had taught her to be methodical. She’d never thought of that before. Why was he so obsessed with her being so rigid in her thinking? Everything he taught her was structure, memorization, rote repetition of facts. Dad had never given her a philosophy lesson, or literature or art. I was like Dad was was terrified of abstract thinking. At least for Miranda. She made a mental note to ask him about it when they talked.

That made her choke up. She would talk to him again.

The keypad timed out again and she tapped it automatically.

The sequence on the pad was 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Dad wouldn’t use the simplest, most illogical sequence possible. Would he? Would he use it because it was the opposite of everything he’d taught Miranda?

Had she ever tried simple sequences?

She tried one through four; nothing. One through five, one through six, none of them opened the safe, all the way up to nine.

She’d done 1111, 2222, 3333, etc, just by doing every number between 0000 and 9999.

But if the pad went up to nine digits…

She typed nine nines, 999999999.

The pad emitted a little beep and the door made a cracking click. The door popped out about a centimeter.

Had she really never tried that? Maybe Dad had changed it recently?

For too long she just crouched there, staring at it stupidly.

Of everything she’d experienced in the last … forever, this was the thing that blew her mind the most. This whole time the safe had just been nine nines?

She was scared to open it.

Stupid safe. She got up and walked around the car. She still wanted to get the hoe and beat the thing. Why must Dad keep secrets from her?

She let out a huff and forced herself over to the safe. Maybe it would have his file from the witness protection program. Would it be full of money?

She’d be really angry if it was empty.

The door was heavier than it looked. She had to grab the edge of it with both hands to open it.

With how dark the garage was, she could only really see that the safe was nearly packed. Crammed inside was reams and reams of papers. Well, that was less disappointing than it being empty.

She dug at the papers and pulled out wads till it all lay on the garage floor. She couldn’t see, which reminded her there was a flashlight hanging above the light switch. She went and grabbed it and sat on the concrete over the pile.

The first page she grabbed was a letter, written in tight methodical script. She read the words love and forever.

It was hard to read, so she adjusted the flashlight. That helped for a second. She saw the word married when she realized the text was continuing to fade. She moved the letter and the text left little tracers in the air.

It was so fascinating that she shook it. The text crumbled into dust and puffed into smoke over the paper.

How old were these papers? She set the letter down and picked up a pay stub.

Dynamix

Maybe a software company? She flipped it over, but there wasn’t anything useful on the back. When she flipped it back, more smoke drifted off of it. It looked … weird.

She waved her hand to clear the smoke. When she could see again, it was a check stub for Piggly Wiggly, the grocery store in town where Dad worked. The name on the check was Alistair McGee.

It was signed in crayon.

She wanted to get out of the garage, but the house didn’t feel safe. If she opened the garage door, people might see her. She felt trapped. She put the stub down and set the papers aside. She opened the garage window and watched the curtains blow in the breeze.

There had to be some kind of rules to this. Why were these papers changing? It couldn’t just be random. Could it?

She wished she could remember the name that was originally on the check, but it was gone like the smoke.

She forced herself over to the pile of papers and shined the flashlight on them. She grabbed at random; a picture of older people, a hospital report, a child’s drawing, each smoked as she brought it up. Soon the smoke was so thick she couldn’t see her own hands.

Frantically, she tried using mnemonic exercises to remember what she was looking at. A home in California. San Jose. Alice Smith. Programming. She could barely hold each fact in her head as they changed. California to Virginia. San Jose to Aught. Computer programmer to stock boy. Already it was vague and confused.

There was a picture of a little girl, maybe three years old. Was that her? She set it down.

The next picture showed the head and shoulders of a plain woman. She was standing in front of an office window, looking off frame. Maybe she looked a little like Miranda. Did Dad have a sister?

Dust fell from the picture. It started to fade. Miranda held it perfectly still as she memorized the woman’s features. She had Dad’s eyes, Miranda’s hair. She looked a little sad. She was wearing a tee-shirt with a company logo over her breast.

The picture faded out and her features changed. Even as still as Miranda held it, the colors of the picture fell off like sand in an hourglass.

The falling pieces created smoke and eventually Miranda had to admit it was gone. She shook the photo to clear the smoke and looked at what was left.

Once it cleared, she was holding a picture of Dad and Alice. Alice beamed. Dad’s expression was scared and tired. He still looked off frame, like he was waiting for something horrible to come.

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

The only place that made any sense in the entire universe was the center of the juniper bush. She didn’t even remember running back to the houses. She’d been in the cloud with the papers and then she was running and then she was in the bush. She clutched herself to get warm.

At least she had confirmation that someone, something was making the changes happen.

Almost against her will, she stretched her neck around and looked back at her house. She’d been right about yellow police tape, but it was wrapped across two metal poles embedded in small cylinders of concrete set on either side of the driveway.

The morning sun was well above the rooftops now–she estimated it was about nine. The Bauteil’s house looked dark and empty. She doubted they were still asleep. Maybe they’d already headed off to school while she was walking to the hospital. Miranda couldn’t remember what day it was. She hoped they weren’t out looking for her. She should have left a note.

She wished she had her spyglass. That made her think about Dad and that made her tear up. Weird shapes appeared in her vision when she pressed her palms into her eyes, but it made the crying stop. She was already sick of crying.

The wind rustled the bushes and the mailbox squeaked next to the driveway. Little bits of yellow tape showed through the branches. Why would they block the house all the way out here? She had a horrible image that Alice had stabbed Dad out on the lawn. Had he been trying to get away?

She could suddenly clearly imagine a blood stain on the lawn behind her. She wanted to push forward out on to the sidewalk and run away, but instead she took a deep breath and twisted around.

The lawn looked the same as it always had. No blood or trampled grass or outlines in white chalk.

Maybe they only made the outlines for dead people. She sniffed and wiped snot off of her upper lip. She desperately wanted her spyglass. She desperately wanted to change her clothes.

There was a red and white sticker on the front door. She couldn’t read it, but was pretty sure it would be police legalese for STAY OUT.

It wasn’t a decision. She just started moving and was crawling into her yard toward her house.

She couldn’t help but look for blood in the yard again.

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

The sun teased at her eyes and for at least a minute Miranda was convinced the entire night before was a dream. Then she was disoriented. Then it settled in. Dad was in the hospital. Alice was in jail.

From the light outside, it was about five in the morning. Before they fell asleep last night, Cindy had offered to set up on the floor next to Miranda, which sounded nice, but Miranda had said no.

Cindy’s bed was a big twisted clump of blankets. Cindy looked like the victim of an octopus attack. Miranda fought the urge to straighten her and the blankets out.

Cindy stirred a little when Miranda got up, and again when she came back from dressing the bathroom. Cindy murmured to herself while Miranda pulled on her shoes. Miranda was worried she woke her as she closed the bedroom door, but after she stood there a minute Cindy still didn’t wake.

The living room was darker than Cindy’s room because the curtains were closed. Light bled through, landing right on the golden cage. It glinted in her peripheral vision. She made a point of only looking at the front door. She was afraid if she looked at the cage too closely, she’d see all the bird-dads staring at her and she needed some time alone. It was weird how quickly she’d adapted to the idea of Cindy’s dads sleeping as birds. When she clicked the front door shut, she thought she heard birds titter inside.

She rubbed her arms against the cold morning air. She’d forgotten her coat at school when she was suspended.

The sun just peaked over the rooftops as she walked up Huntington toward the hospital. Hopefully they wouldn’t turn her away. Maybe with police cases the security was tighter. She didn’t know.

The walk up Huntington warmed her a little, but she still missed the coat. As she moved into downtown she saw people milling in the grocery store, setting up for the day. The wind picked up again and she shivered.

She wished she had her investigation notebook. How much in that had changed? She’d have to work out an ever better system for remembering things if her notes were going to change on her.

As she turned onto Oliver street, only about a quarter mile from the hospital. She refused to think about how Dad was doing till she saw him. It was best to stick with facts.

But what constituted a fact when everything kept changing?

That reminded her of an earlier note. Who was changing things?

The wind built into a flurry and she had to bend her head against it. A piece of paper struck her shoulder and flew off.

When she looked up, she saw the air was full of flying papers, twisting into vortexes and blowing out like birds breaking from their flock. Papers whipped past her head and she batted at them.

The papers coalesced into a cloud around her, blocking out everything else. She ran forward, her arms out for balance. A paper hit her hand and she clamped down on it.

Suddenly she was alone. Shivering on Oliver street. The wind was gone and she was still clutching the single piece of paper. No one else was around, but she retreated next to the porch of a empty house with a FOR SALE sign in the yard.

It took five minutes before her breath went back to normal. Her watch showed it was 5:45 am.

She was about to throw the paper away, but glanced at it. Seeing her Dad’s name made her read on.

The flowing script read:

 

His name will be Alistair McGee, for I love him more than anyone has ever loved before. I altered his bank card so the machine spat out loaves. I turned his car into a baby dragon, a unicorn dragon. When he shaved, his razor always cut him and his skin bled tiny glass figurines. Oh me, I do love him so.

His name wasn’t always Alistair, or McGee, but he needed fixing and the old name just wouldn’t do. The old body wouldn’t do for I switched it when I decided I loved him so. He was a boring old accountant, so I changed him into a fireman, though not a very good one.

He had someone special and they were so pretty. They had hair that looked like sand does twice a day. They were very nice, but they loved Alistair and that just would not do.

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

Bill-dad didn’t try to talk to her for the whole ride home, though for part of it he reached behind the seat and held Miranda’s hand. Cindy’s head was heavy on Miranda’s shoulder and Cindy’s tears made the shoulder wet. All Miranda could focus on was that it made her shirt itchy.

They pulled onto Huntington Street. Miranda’s heart skipped and she kept her eyes locked on the Bauteil’s. Anything so she didn’t look over at her own house.

She imagined yellow tape across the door.

The garage door closed behind them and it felt safe to look around. The Bauteil’s garage was immaculately clean. The bare yellow light bulbs lit walls lined with perfectly spaced, perfectly clean yard tools.

Cindy pulled her out of the car. Even the concrete was stain free. Miranda wondered if they cleaned the tools after each use.
Little organized sections of camping equipment and toys lined the floor along the walls.

“Cindy, why don’t you help Miranda get cleaned up while I make a bed in your room.” Bill-dad paused and laid a hand on Miranda’s shoulder, then he went to the back of the car.

Cindy wiped her face. “We have extra toothbrushes and you can borrow some pajamas.”

Miranda couldn’t help it, just for a second, she smiled. Cindy’s pajamas were probably pink, with unicorns on them.

#

Cindy made sure Miranda brushed her teeth and washed her face and then left her in the bathroom. The pajamas turned out to be blue, but with lace on the edges. That made Miranda smile a little.

When Miranda came out of the bathroom, Cindy was in the living room with all her dads.

Four of them. Miranda felt a pang in her heart. She’d sort of hoped there would be five again.

The cage sat on the kitchen counter. The dads stood in a line with Cindy centered in front of them. One at a time, each dad hugged Cindy goodnight.

Bill looked worn out. He’d waited at the police station for hours. Miranda realized she didn’t need the “dad” distinction after their names anymore. He was just Bill.

He glanced over at Miranda a few times. She had the impression he wanted to come over and give her a hug, but wasn’t sure if she wanted one. Miranda was fifty percent sure she wanted a hug, but didn’t know how to ask for one.

Cindy opened the door on the cage.

Tom smiled at Miranda. “I made you a bed on Cindy’s floor. Just let us know if you need anything tonight.”

Then he was a bird.

She’d blinked and missed the transition, if there had been one. The little bird flew once around the room and into the cage.

Miranda was pretty sure her mouth was hanging open.

Cindy shrugged.

Bill said, “Goodnight, Miranda,” and also folded into a tiny bird. He did one quick circle around the room and flew into the cage next to Tom. Even as birds, she could tell which was which. Tom was all black, with a red streak on his wings. Bill was a yellow canary. Ah, it’d been him she’d seen on Sunday.

Then Bob and then John. A bluebird and a finch respectively. Cindy closed the cage door. There was no latch. Miranda supposed there was no reason to lock them in.

“That’s how it works.” Cindy shrugged again.

Miranda whispered to her, “Can they understand us when they’re birds.”

Cindy leaned in and whispered, “Yes, and they can hear you.”

The birds tweeted in unison. It sounded like laughter.

Miranda blushed.

Cindy bopped her on the shoulder. “Come on. Let’s go to bed.”

The bed roll was surprisingly comfortable. Bill had put down two sleeping bags, one over the other, and tucked a sheet under them to make a mattress. He’d folded the blankets back diagonally over the pillow and set a little green teddy bear there. She felt so touched she couldn’t feel offended that he’d thought she needed a teddy bear.

Once Cindy turned off the lights, though, she held the bear.

She tried to be quiet, but every time she looked over at Cindy, the streetlights glinted off Cindy’s eyes as she stared at the ceiling.

Finally Miranda said, “I can’t sleep.”

“Yeah.” Cindy reached behind her head to switch on the light.

They lay there is silence for a bit before Miranda said, “How do you feel?”

Cindy kept staring at the ceiling. “Sad.”

Miranda pushed the teddy under the blankets. She’d never seen Cindy so reserved. They both had good reason.

Finally Cindy said, “I’m trying to get my head around this.” She got up on her elbow. “I can’t stop thinking about that fifth dad you say I had.” Her face got that hollow look again. “What was he like? What was his name? Was he nice?”

“I never met him.” Miranda hadn’t realized how sad that was. She didn’t have anything to offer. She felt like she’d let Cindy down.

Cindy lay back. “I wonder if other people in town have disappeared and we just don’t remember.”

Miranda said, “I don’t think so. For some reason I always notice stuff like that. I always remember.”

“Why you?”

Why her? She noticed things, sure. But so many things had changed. “I don’t know.”

Cindy pulled her sheets to her chin. “Why did I notice the changes to the school then? But not my dad?”

“I don’t know.”

Neither of them spoke for awhile. Miranda listened to Cindy breathe. The breaths came out fast and hitched.

Cindy got up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “You know what I think? I think the weird stuff in town is connected to your step-mom.”

Miranda sighed. “I’ve thought about that.”

She had. It was hard to pinpoint when her life had gotten weird. It had always been weird. But she was trying to pinpoint when things had stopped making sense. She remembered the desks changing in school last Monday, but before that …

“It think the first weird thing was you and your dads.”

Miranda forced herself to keep eye contact with Cindy. She wished she’d said that more tactfully.

But Cindy’s face was tight. She didn’t say anything at first, just tapped her leg against the side of the bed. “What are you saying?” She crossed her arms.

Miranda didn’t know why, but she felt angry. “Your dads. Your five dads and you and this house.” She gesticulated around the room. “Your deed is written in crayon.”

Cindy pounded her fists into the bed on either side of her. “Your step-mom acts like a Barbie mashed up with every old TV mom. You’ve been driving around with weird for three years.” Cindy’s voice was getting loud and harsh.

“Is that my fault? I’ve been dealing with her and Dad and changing towns every eight months!” She wanted to throw the teddy bear into Cindy’s face. “I didn’t get everything I wanted and five parents to take care of everything for me.”

Miranda was screaming, but she didn’t care. “I’m sick of this! I’m sick of all of this! I never wanted Alice or your dads! I never wanted you!”

The words just hung there while Cindy and Miranda stared each other down. Miranda was shaking. She wanted to scream and cry some more, she wanted to take it all back, but it just sat there out in the open.

Cindy’s door bumped inward and a little yellow bird flew in and suddenly Bill stood there in his day clothes. “What’s going on in here?”

It was ridiculous, but all Miranda could think about was what happened to Bill’s clothes when when he turned into a bird? Now he was human again. Did the clothes come back from some other dimension? Were the cloths just part of him? She shut off the train of thought that tried to remember what outfits Bill had worn over the last few days.

Bill crouched down and sat on his heels. “Guys–“

“Miranda thinks I’m spoiled because you’re good dads.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Miranda looked down at her blankets. That was what she meant.

Cindy’s voice broke. “You think we’re a bunch of freaks.”

Bill put his hand out. “It’s okay, it’s been a bad night for everyone. I think we’ll all feel better after a night’s sleep.”

“What if Dad …” She couldn’t finish the sentence. “in the night.”

“You’re dad is going to be okay. We’ll go see him tomorrow.” He stood up.

Miranda looked at Cindy, but she was looking out the window.

Bill wiped his eyes. “Maybe we should set one of you up out in the living room. Cindy, how about you come sleep on the couch and give Miranda your bed.

“No!” Miranda didn’t realize how completely terrified she felt of being alone tonight.

Bill came over and put his hand and her shoulder. “Okay. No problem. Right, Cindy?”

Cindy didn’t look back over. “It’s fine.”