She knew she was hyperventilating, but her breathing exercises weren’t working. She couldn’t bring herself to look through the spyglass again. She thought she might sit there forever, freaking out, but she automatically re-wrapped her spyglass and packed it away. Once her breathing slowed down, she looked for neighbors and stumbled into her house and up the stairs to her room.
Had anyone else seen that? Was she going crazy? People didn’t just turn into birds. The physics alone made it impossible.
She didn’t even want to think about the biology.
Her Einstein poster looked disappointed again. She felt embarrassed for even thinking such a thing had happened.
At least her room felt right. She’d loved this room since the first day they’d moved here. It had a closet and built-in drawers. Lots of places to hide things.
The spyglass stuck on something when she shoved it underneath her bed, so she left it half out and slid her notes under it. She should have written up what she saw, but if she wrote it down, did that mean she had to admit it was real?
It was clearly just a trick of the light, or maybe she’d hallucinated because she was dehydrated.
She got up to get a glass of water. The edge of the spyglass still stuck out from under the bed. Dad knew she had it, he’d helped her design the lens frame, but she made a point of only letting him see her use it for stargazing. She couldn’t help herself from looking out the front window. Fortunately Cindy’s shade was drawn.
Relief ran through her. Who knows what else she’d see if she kept looking.
She fell back on her bed and stared at the ceiling, counting the stars pasted there, each in the sequence of primes.
2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.
She and Dad had infused putty with zinc sulfide and strontium aluminate from school and formed little stars that she’d glued to her ceiling. Alice had helped bake them. It made Miranda feel more grounded in reality knowing exactly how she’d made them.
19, 23, 29.
Later tonight her ceiling would glow with a galaxy of little stars.
She’d taken particular care to make sure the display was accurate to the major astronomical clusters in the Virginia sky. Ursa Major was reflected in the mirror on her desk.
31, 37, 41.
If a person turned into a tiny bird, where would all their extra mass go? She shook her head.
The front door shut downstairs, and Alice called up, “I’m home again, sweetie.” Alice said the exact same thing every day. Her repetitiveness was usually annoying, but all Miranda wanted at the moment was to collect normal things.
Alice called, “Dinner soon!”
She forced herself to put Cindy out of her head. The canary had probably flown into the room just as Cindy’s dad had walked out of frame.
“Kay.” She heard the shake in her own voice.
She couldn’t let herself get distracted like this. What did she need to take care of now that Alice was home?
Alice hummed something downstairs, occasionally she sang a word or two, but Miranda couldn’t make them out. If only Alice would act more evil, it made Miranda doubt the murder attempts were real.
Just like the bird?
Maybe she was looking at the data about Alice wrong? Alice was never depressed or moody, she never argued, she never complained, even the three separate times Dad had suddenly insisted they pull up and leave town.
The garage door rumbled and she heard the door to the garage open. Alice called out, “Dinner will be ready in ten minutes, dear.”
Dad sounded tired. “Thanks, hon.”
Dinner was awkward. She, Dad and Alice barely fit around the tiny table in the kitchen, making it hard to avoid the uncomfortable silence. Dad was so stressed these days. Dinner conversation was particularly bad on Sundays, when Dad couldn’t even ask how school was that day. He seemed afraid to ask about anything else. Miranda picked at the thin metal around the Formica table. The beef stew was getting cold on her plate.
The heat from the stove felt nice, but Miranda sometimes worried she would catch her hair on fire from the burners behind her.
Maybe Cindy’s window was some sort of hologram. Miranda wished she could bounce her theories off Dad, but then she’d have to admit to spying.
She and Dad used to spend dinner arguing over scientific articles he’d xeroxed at the library, or they’d push their dinner plates to the center of the table and solve math puzzles together on butcher paper. Especially since they’d moved to Aught, Dad had gotten increasingly quiet, and his temper flares had gotten worse.
They’d lived in seventeen towns in the last thirteen years. The only reason they’d stayed in Aught for nearly a whole year was because of her math teacher, Mr. Hanson.
That had been rough.
Mr. Hanson called in Dad. Miranda sat terrified and silent. He said Miranda looked like she was about to have a nervous breakdown. Dad listened and politely told Mr. Hanson they’d work it out as a family. Alice said nothing. Dad drove them home looking scared and guilty.
That night he made a deal with Miranda, they’d stop traveling if she spent twice as much time on their exercises and tried to act normal.
Miranda wanted to blame Dad’s increasing stress on Alice. Certainly her (potentially) homicidal stepmother was part of the problem, but he refused to acknowledge Alice’s weird behavior. He seemed stressed and distracted even when Alice wasn’t around. Maybe something new had happened. Maybe he’d say it was time to run again. The thought made her chest feel cold.
Miranda’s past was wrapped into a category she called The Big Secret. She wasn’t allowed to ask about it.
That didn’t keep her from writing up countless theories in her notebooks.
- 1.) Dad is running from the mob.
- 2.) Dad is an international spy.
- 3.) Dad committed a horrible crime.
She’d collected hundreds of potential clues, but still hadn’t gotten around the walls Dad put up around their past. As long as she could remember, Dad had been running from something. She was pretty sure that something had to do with her real mom.
She remembered things really well. It was just how her brain worked. She could even, just barely, remember being born, but Mom was a total blank. Her real mom. She remembered being held, a blurry face. The more she tried to remember, the blurrier the face became. Sometimes she felt like she had to look at her own memories through her peripheral vision, just so it wouldn’t run away.
Dad’s response to questions about it was always somewhere between silence and anger. It obviously hurt him when she asked, but he wouldn’t say why.
She didn’t want to cause him pain, but she desperately wanted to know where she came from. She once paid nine ninety five to a site to trace his name. As far as the internet was concerned, he didn’t exist. In the house there were no pictures of him from more than three years ago. In photographs he looked haunted, always looking off to the side, like he was waiting for an attack.
If only Dad would tell her what had happened to Mom, or where Miranda was born, why they moved so much, anything. Her whole inclination toward the scientific method of investigation formed around trying to figure out Dad.
There were no pictures of Miranda, except school photos. Alice sometimes suggested they take more pictures of her, but Dad always said no. Alice never pushed it.
There wasn’t documentation of Dad and Alice’s marriage. Miranda had called fourteen town halls. For all she knew, their marriage was just a story they’d made up.
Dad looked up from his plate. “Did you do anything fun today?” The usual fear-look crossed his face.
She couldn’t tell him about spying on the Bauteils, especially about people turning into birds.
She was still searching for something to change the subject when Alice’s face brightened, “Oh! Miranda, mail came for you!” She pulled the college postcard from the front pocket of her apron.
Ugh! If she didn’t know better, she’d think Alice had waited till now on purpose.
Dad jumped up from his seat like a fighter coming out into the ring. “Who’d be writing you?” Miranda leaned to grab the card, but he reached over her before she could.
He just stood there, read it for much longer then a postcard should take. He read the front, flipped it over and read the back.
He looked at the front again. “Why is a college sending you an orientation notice?” Worry lines divided his forehead.
Why did Dad have to see it before she could present her case? Miranda looked at the floor. “It’s a… Mr. Hanson said my grades were so high I could probably go to college early.”
Dad said nothing, just stared at the card.
“It’s only community college.” She should have probably just stopped talking, but she couldn’t stop herself. “I looked into it, I can easily ace the SATs and ACT and Mrs. Jenkins would put in a word for me and I could take the bus and I’ll be fifteen next year…”
Dad went back to his chair. “What have I always said?”
Miranda looked at Alice, but she just smiled vacantly. Miranda said, “You said I have to keep up with my training and…”
“And don’t stand out, don’t try to be special.” Dad didn’t say anything, so she said, “You always say you just want me to be normal.” She glanced at Alice. “All of us.”
“To at least act normal.”
Alice had gone back to eating. Miranda pushed her plate to the center of the table. “You never say why. Why is it so important to be normal?” She heard her voice rising, so she pitched it down. It never paid to get into a screaming match with her father, he sometimes got really loud. “I’m not normal. I’m really smart. You say that every day. Why have me learning all this stuff if you want me to be normal?”
The card started to tear in his hands. “I… it’s important, Miranda, I can’t say why yet, but it’s really important that you don’t push this.” He looked down at the card, and sadness ran across his face. “I’m trying to give you everything I can, but you’re not ready yet.”
He wouldn’t look at her while he tore up the card. She stole another look at Alice, as if Alice would ever give any support.
Alice polished the blade of her butter knife, as if she was sharpening it. “Whatever your father says, dear.”