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.
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.