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.