A few people wandered the hospital halls. It was hard to distinguish patients from staff, maybe from people who’d wandered in from the street. Some immobile patients were scattered amongst the empty rooms. Occasionally an orderly walked by, a clipboard hanging from their hands or distractedly pushing a broom.
Everyone looked dazed.
The hospital was like a maze. They found room 1264 on the second floor. They had to search three sections to find it.
The door was shut. Miranda couldn’t get herself to push it open. What if Dad wasn’t there? What if he was dead? She looked at Cindy.
Miranda pushed. The door moved inward with a little click.
The sun ran in a bright little stripe over Dad’s hands. His eyes were closed. He looked twice as thin as the last time she’d seen him.
One of his wrists was wrapped in gauze with a tube running to a drip. The other hand had a plastic clip on his thumb. Miranda was pretty sure it was a blood oxygen monitor, but she didn’t know how it worked. She thought about looking it up later, but as soon as the thought came, she knew she was just looking for excuses not to think about Dad.
He didn’t look good, but he looked well cared for. It didn’t make sense with how people had looked out in the hospital halls. Who was taking care of him?
Cindy pushed the door closed behind them, which made a much louder click than when they’d come in. Dad stirred. His eyes half opened.
He looked even more frail searching around, confused. First he just stared out the window, then he eventually scanned the room.
He jumped when he saw Miranda. “Hon?”
Every muscle in Miranda’s body tightened. She wanted to run to Dad, but instead she held back. She had no idea how he’d react to seeing her. She realized she never knew how Dad would react to anything anymore. Her own father was a complete mystery. She balled her hands into fists and waited.
And waited. Dad looked away and focused on a spot just to the side of her. “What time is it?”
She didn’t even look at her watch. She shrugged. Cindy was silent behind her.
His gaze settled on the floor. It had a swirly pattern on it, like little abstract flowers. She wondered if it had looked that way yesterday.
Dad’s eyes focused on Cindy for the first time. He face cycled through shock and anger and fear.
Cindy raised her hand. “Hi, Mr. McGee.”
Dad looked like he would push himself up in the bed, but he deflated again.
Miranda didn’t wait for him to speak. “We need to talk.”
The room was so silent, Miranda could hear her heart pounding. Dad stared at the floor again. “Cindy, could you give us a minute?”
Cindy started to move, but Miranda put out her hand. “No, she’s staying.”
Dad pushed himself up higher, as if to argue, but Miranda said, “I’d just tell her everything as soon as I leave. I’m not keeping secrets anymore.”
Dad shrank further into the bed. He looked so small and frail that Miranda felt guilty for yelling.
A machine near the bed beeped. Miranda’s heart continued to race. Dad nodded.
Miranda’s feet still ached from the hike up the hill. She looked around for a chair.
Before she could move, Dad said, “I was trying to protect you.”
She froze. She still felt like a coiled spring, like she was going to explode any second. The only chair over by the window. She grabbed it and dragged it over to the door. Cindy looked worse than Miranda felt. She motioned Cindy to the chair. After a second of non-verbal arguing, Cindy sat in it.
She felt better having done something. She turned back to dad. He still wouldn’t look her.
She said, “You’re running from something that changes reality.”
He stiffened. She waited for a full minute for him to say something. Finally he said, “What do you know?”
She shrugged. “Not much.” It was true. “Something … made Alice.” She choked. “And it drove her crazy. Something is wrong with … with everything.” She slid her shoe back till it touched the front of Cindy’s. “Who are we running from?”
Dad laughed, a hollow sound that made Miranda’s chest hurt. “Technically, we’re not running.” He coughed.
By the window was a counter with a pitcher of water and a cup. She went and poured him a glass. She brought it to him. She couldn’t help but notice that she waited for Dad to lean back before she set it down. He waited till she backed away before taking it.
While he sipped at the straw, Miranda said, “I broke into your safe.”
He smiled halfheartedly. “Finally.” His face fell. “I guess they’re gone then. I’ve been trying to protect them for years.”
Miranda thought of the dust and the changing photos. “I think I saw an old picture of Alice. Her name was Jane?”
Dad tried to rub his face, but the plastic thing on his finger got in the way. “No, she’s always been Alice.”
Nothing Dad was saying made sense. “Dad, was that a picture of Mom?”
A hard guffaw came out of him. It quickly turned into a sob. Miranda took a step closer to him, but she was too terrified to touch him. Her eyes watered up. But she bite her lip to stop them.
He only cried for a second. He wiped his eyes with his other hand. “Okay, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell you what you need to know. Then you have to do exactly what I tell you.”
She shifted. Dad had never looked so serious. She nodded.
He took a deep breath. “After I tell you this, you’ll have to use your meditation exercises to forget it. As soon as I’m better, we have to move on.” He looked to Cindy. “Cindy, I’m sorry, but you two are going to have to say goodbye soon.”
Dad said, “I’m serious.”
Even with Cindy right behind her, Miranda felt alone in the room. She couldn’t focus.
Cindy sniffed behind Miranda.
Miranda nodded. She wanted to look at Cindy, but kept Dad’s eyes.
Dad closed his eyes and took two deep breaths. Miranda recognized their calming exercise.
He sighed. “Hon, your step mother is three years old.”
Cindy’s chair scrapped backwards, probably just an inch, but it sounded like nails on a chalkboard. Outside in the hall someone was mumbling to themselves.
Miranda wanted to laugh, but Dad stared at her till she shook her head. “What’s that mean?”
Dad started to answer, but Cindy’s chair scraped louder and slammed against the wall.
She stood and backed against the door. “I don’t want to hear this.”
Dad’s face turned red. “We’re running … no, we’re hiding from a …” He stopped short. He actually looked embarrassed.
Miranda almost said, “Aliens?”
He looked out the window, his voice so quiet, she could barely hear him. “A god.”