Fortunately Mrs. Harris let her out of homeroom early and even walking, she beat the bus by thirty minutes.
She almost forgot to check the food for poison. Her head was brimming with Cindy. What was her mystery? Why couldn’t she just say what it was at school? Why did she have to be so infuriating?
Dad came home late and almost immediately got mad at her for correcting his pronunciation of the Pre Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
She hid in her room for an hour. When she came down, Dad was in the living room, setting up the TV. He had out their science notebooks. Monday night was traditionally family science night. She and Dad would watch four PBS programs in a row: NOVA, History Detectives, reruns of Bill Nye the science guy and then NOVA again. Miranda wasn’t sure how she’d get to check in with Cindy.
Cookie smell came in from the kitchen. She’d have to check those later too. She sighed. Dad looked up at her from the living room. He smiled sadly, like he was about to apologize.
Instead he said, “Ready for Bill Nye?”
She shrugged. Dad hadn’t mentioned their fight the night before. Even with his getting mad earlier, things generally felt more relaxed. She’d still have to talk to him about school at some point, but maybe another day. She tried to smile back.
Dad looked hurt, but he went back to futzing with the TV. He always unhooked the antenna after science night. They didn’t watch a lot of television.
She wished she had Cindy’s number, but she didn’t have a cell phone to call her anyway. Hopefully Cindy only needed a few minutes to fill in Miranda on her assignment.
Dad looked up at her again. More and more she was feeling like she was lying to him, even if it was by omission. She thought about just asking. What harm was there in talking to Cindy for a few minutes?
“Miranda, you going to make popcorn?”
She was so distracted she didn’t understand the question at first. “Oh, right, sure.”
Dad smiled, not even sadly, just a smile, which was nice, he rarely did lately.
In the kitchen, Alice was standing in front of the refrigerator. Miranda dug out the air popper and still Alice didn’t move from the refrigerator door.
“You okay, Alice?”
Alice turned slowly. Looked at Miranda like she didn’t know her. “Who?”
Then her face cleared and she smiled. “Sorry, what?”
“Are you feeling okay?” Miranda put the air popper on the counter. The popcorn was in a high cabinet and she had to stretch to get it.
“Call me Mother, dear.” She turned and called to Dad. “Hon, I need you to go to the drug store.”
Dad yelled from the living room. “What?”
He came into the kitchen and waved his hand back at the living room. “It’s almost science time.”
Alice put her hands on her hips, mock mad. “You forgot to get my special things earlier and I still need them.” Miranda was pretty sure ‘special things’ meant menstrual products, Alice didn’t seem to need birth control.
Ugh, why’d she even think about that?
Dad looked back at the living room again. He looked back and sighed. “Fine.” He grabbed his keys from the bowl by the door. “Miranda, I’ll be back in time for Bill Nye.”
Almost as a reflex she said, “Don’t rush. Test your brakes before you leave the block.”
He paused, looked back and then shook his head. “Okay.”
Outside, the garage door rumbled up and the car pulled out. As the garage door rumbled back down, she left the air popper on the counter, filled and ready to go, but not plugged in yet.
It took her long to realize the opportunity she’d just gotten. She said, “Alice. I need to run outside. Just for a minute!”
Alice was back looking at the refrigerator. “Okay, dear.”
The great thing about Alice was she never asked any questions.
It took three knocks before Tom-Dad answered the door. Time was short and Miranda was already feeling antsy. “Is Cindy home?”
“Sure!” Tom-Dad looked a little like Bill-Dad, not enough to be related, but like they were from the same racial stock… maybe? Though Miranda couldn’t put her finger on what race. Tom-Dad had darker hair and he was a little shorter and older. She made a mental note to look up racial characteristics. At one point she’d thought they were all brothers, but after observation she concluded one of them looked a little Asian and another looked part black.
Person of color, she corrected herself.
No one else seemed to be home. Even after observing them for a week, she was never clear on what the Bauteils did with their day. Tom-Dad was looking at her expectantly, so she said, “Did you say something?”
He nodded, “I said Cindy’s in her room.” He swept his hand across the small living room to the door closest to the front door.
The house was tiny. Miranda realized it only had the one bedroom. The kitchen was off to the left, just an open space designated by dirty yellow linoleum and waist-high cabinets. The walls didn’t have any art. Miranda made a mental note. The only real feature of Bauteils’ living room was a flat screen TV with a large modular couch arranged around it. It looked like they had cable. She felt a little jealous.
There was a big empty space behind the kitchen with nothing in it, just the glass sliding door on the back wall showing their tiny backyard. Of the two other doors, one must go to the attached garage and the other was probably the bathroom. It was hard to imagine how six people lived in such a small house. Where did everyone sleep?
She was just about to knock on Cindy’s door when she realized what she’d just seen in the corner behind the couch. Unless her eyes were playing tricks on her, it was the same gold cage she’d seen Cindy holding yesterday. She squinted in the dim light. Just peeking over the bottom edge of the cage were bird heads, maybe three or four.
She worried she was pausing too long again. “Where are the rest of the Bauteil … men?”
Tom glanced at cage. “Sleeping.”
It seemed like a joke, Miranda watched his face to see if he’d smile. He yawned.
Knocking on Cindy’s door made it swing open, even as Cindy yelled, “Come in!”
It was a surprisingly big room. Cindy sat on her bed, pushed against the wall underneath the lone window, just like Miranda had theorized. There must have been at least twelve feet of empty floor space from the edge of the bed to the dresser. Miranda also noted that the bed had a unicorn bedspread. She felt only a tiny bit smug.
“Bedtime in fifteen, hon.” Tom-Dad’s voice was muffled by the half-closed door.
Cindy yelled again, “Okay, Dad!” To Miranda she whispered, “Close the door.”
Miranda shut the door slowly so it wouldn’t make a loud noise and maybe offend Tom-Dad. Though maybe not all dads were as touchy as hers. That brought up an interesting point. If Cindy called them all “Dad,” didn’t it get confusing?
Cindy hopped off the bed and pulled a tiny stool from next to her dresser to the center of the room. It made a loud scraping noise as she pulled it. Miranda wondered why she didn’t just pick it up.
Miranda parked herself on the stool as Cindy hopped back up on the bed. It was so low it made kind of an inefficient seat. It probably would be more comfortable to just sit on the floor, but Cindy had gone to all the effort and Miranda didn’t want to be impolite.
Cindy looked furtively at the door, leaned forward and lowered her voice. “I don’t have a mom.”
Miranda leaned back away from Cindy. The stool was so low that she almost toppled off. It seemed like she should say something, maybe something consoling, but she couldn’t think of anything.
Cindy said, “I have five dads.”
Miranda grabbed her mouth. It had just slipped out.
Cindy didn’t seem to notice. “I don’t think other people have five dads.” She looked more confused than upset. “And no mom.”
Miranda leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees. She’d seen an interviewer do it on TV and hoped it looked thoughtful. “Not that I’ve observed, no.”
“Exactly.” Cindy shrugged. “So I want you to investigate me and my dads.”
Miranda felt a weird mix of emotions. Elated, her first real investigation! And one one that she’d already started working on!
Then she just felt confused. Where would she even start on an investigation like this? It didn’t make any sense. It probably broke the laws of physics.
Still, there was a sensible answer to everything. She just needed to look at it the right way.
Like Dad always said, “Apply logic.”
She tried to think of a perfect first question. It was important to start things on the right tone.
To buy time, she looked around the room, trying to look thoughtful. Cindy had a vintage wood dresser and an equally ornate desk covered with with at least four brushes and five teddy bears, maybe one from each dad? Miranda wanted to get up and study the pictures on the walls, but she thought she should ask some questions.
The best she could muster was, “Do you know where you were born?” She wished she’d brought her notebook. “Do you have a birth certificate?”
Cindy looked at the ceiling and crinkled her brow in a way that was kind of endearing. She opened her mouth to answer, but then Miranda remembered. “Hey, what did you want to show me?”
“Oh, right!” Cindy hopped off the bed again and flopped onto the floor. Miranda wondered how she kept her dresses so nice, the way she threw herself around. Cindy pressed her cheek against the bed and stretched her arm underneath. “It’s here. I pushed it too far against the wall.”
Miranda felt a little silly for feeling kinship around the fact that Cindy hid things under her bed as well.
Cindy slid back from the bed holding a stained manila folder. “This is the weird part.”
In Miranda’s opinion, it was all the weird part, but she took the envelope.
Cindy knelt down next to her as Miranda opened the folder. “My dads don’t keep very good files. There just a few of these stuffed in a drawer in the kitchen.
There were a few receipts from the grocery store, an invoice from the auto repair shop, the lease on the house.
“Your dads need an organizational system.”
Cindy’s brow furrowed. “Look at the dates on all this stuff.”
Miranda dug through the pack. There was a copy of Cindy’s school admission. “What am I looking for?”
“None of it is older than two months.”
“Well, maybe your dads don’t hold on to their paperwork. You said it’s all disorganized.”
“But I’ve been through all the paperwork in the house. There’s nothing older than a few months.”
“Maybe your dads didn’t bring their old receipts before you moved to town.”
Cindy looked a little haunted. “I don’t really remember much from before we moved here.” She pointed at the bed. “We bought that in town. And the dresser. And the kitchen stuff. I can’t think of anything we actually brought to town, except the car.”
Miranda patted her shoulder. “I’m sure there’s some explanation.”
“All my clothes are from here.”
“Just let me look through these papers.”
Cindy pulled a picture from underneath the pile. “This is us in the backyard.”
The picture was in daylight. There was Cindy in the middle of all five dads. Each dad had his right arm on the shoulder of the dad next to him. They each beamed like they each felt more proud than the next.
She was just about to ask the names of the two dad’s she didn’t know when Cindy pointed at the gold cage, sitting on the lawn near them. “That bird cage is exactly two months old.”
The cage! “That reminds me. I need to ask you –“
The doorknob clicked and Cindy snatched the folder from her. As the door opened she slid it under the bed.
Tom-Dad leaned in. “That’s fifteen minutes, darling.”
Fifteen minutes. If Miranda’s dad was home already, she’d be completely busted. Anyway, Cindy gave her a look that said stop talking.
Miranda stood up. “Guess I should get home.”
Tom-Dad smiled and left.
Miranda got up to go, but turned at the door. “Did you … Did I see your dad turn …”
Cindy leaned back on the bed. She nodded. “I guess that’s not normal either.”