Chapter 11: Miranda takes charge
Copyright © 2013 by Brian Bixby
I turn to look. The horror seems to be attacking an old woman who was sitting opposite Miranda at the table. Her eyes are bulging out of their sockets, her arms are flailing, and she’s screaming louder than a four-year-old.
I hear something behind me and turn to see what it is. Miranda’s sitting up, shaking her head as if she were just waking up. Suddenly her head snaps forward to look at the scene behind me. She becomes enraged and jumps up, shouting, “Leave her alone. That’s a paying customer!” And she charges the thing.
Bad strategy. The thing tosses Miranda right back, and this time I hear her grunt in pain as she hits the wall. I run to help, but she shakes me off, saying to herself, “Bright move, Miranda.” She gets up again. But this time, instead of charging at the thing, she runs over to the table and picks up the crystal ball and holds it aloft in one hand.
I’m thinking maybe she’s going to throw it at the thing, but that’s not what happens. Instead, lights began spilling out of ball. Quickly the lights organize into a rotating spectrum that begins to spin around the room.
It seems to confuse the thing. It leaves off the woman and begins backing away. Miranda gets herself between it and the door as the pattern of spinning lights gets brighter and faster. Around and around, faster and faster, it’s starting to hurt my eyes. And it’s hurting more than the eyes of the thing, I guess. The light is somehow being refracted by it. The thing is now easy to see, being a chaos of colors, roughly human in shape. And my heart rises to see that it’s in trouble. It’s backing away, “arms” in front of it, as Miranda drives it into a corner.
Miranda has a wicked smile. She knows she has it on the run. As she advances, she yells at it, “That fixes you, doesn’t it? Want more?” And then the lights shift even faster. Suddenly the whole room seemed to be lit up in a glaring white light that washed out all trace of color, save for Miranda’s black.
The thing is now trembling and pulsating. It reminds me of a physics experiment in school about standing waves. That’s what it began to look like, with pulses of intense color shooting through it at faster and faster speeds, warping and disrupting it.
And then, all at once, the boundaries of the thing give way, and with a horrible noise it explodes in a ball of light. I have to shut my eyes against it.
When I open my eyes, the room is normal again. The light show has stopped. Miranda is standing in the corner, the crystal ball resting in her hands, looking at the old woman lying on the floor.
Wanting to understand what happened, I start to say, “Miranda . . .”
Miranda’s head snaps around to look at me. Her lips curl in annoyance. She spits out, “I ought to bill you for a special consultation. Destroying devastating spirits is not one of my usual services.”
I don’t know what to say to that. So instead I mutter, “Ah, hey, um, I’m sorry . . . is the old woman okay?”
Miranda glances at her and then shrugs. “Oh, yeah, sure, the devastator only tortured her for maybe a minute or two. She shouldn’t require more than six months of psychiatric therapy.”
And it’s my fault. “Look, um, I’m sorry.”
Miranda sharply upbraids me. “So you keep saying. But she was a paying customer. Who’s going to pay my bills?”
She goes back to her seat, sits down, drops the crystal ball back into its stand, and takes a deep breath. Her voice is calmer as she turns to face me and says, “Look, kid . . . I mean, Jane, look, I know you didn’t mean this to happen. And it’s not like you were going to fight off a devastator by yourself. It’s just that . . .” She shrugs. “I haven’t had to deal with one of those things since maybe ’45 or ’46, and it caught me by surprise. Just where did you pick that thing up?”
“It followed me from my home.”
Miranda shakes her head. “Nope, not possible, no possible source for one of those things around here. I’d know.” She rests her head on one hand, her elbows resting on the table, thinking. I start to say something about the old woman, but shut up when she glares at me before going back to her thinking. How she can glare at me when I can’t see her eyes, I don’t know, but Miranda can do it.
Finally, she stands up again and turns to me. “Better take me to where you first saw it.”
I point at the old woman lying on the floor. “What about your customer?”
Miranda shakes her head. “She’ll be safe here. Besides, the longer she stays unconscious, the less it will hurt when she wakes up. C’mon, lead the way.”
Walking with Miranda through downtown would have been a lot more amusing if it hadn’t been for the occasion. Everyone is glancing at Miranda, and then at me, and giving us both the benefit of the sidewalk. I get the impression one way or another that Miranda isn’t all that popular. I am tempted to shout out, “Stay away from us or Miranda will kill you!” It strikes me as hilarious, and I have trouble holding the laughter in. Miranda notices and scowls, but says nothing.
We get to Sherwood Forest Drive and I take up the position where I’d been standing when I realized the thing had been coming out of the house. I tell Miranda, “I was here. I saw it standing just in front of the house.”
Miranda looks dissatisfied. “Shouldn’t be.” She glances around. “The portal must be inside your house, because it’s sure as hell not out here. Time you show me your home sweet home.” And she takes off with long strides all the way to our front door.
I hurry to catch up with her and grab her arm just as she reaches the door. She spins around and says, “What now?”
“What do I tell my parents?”
Miranda looks stumped for a moment, then smiles in spite of herself. “Yeah, I suppose introducing me as hunting for a magical portal that unleashes devastating spirits might get us both a padded cell. Let’s see . . . I’m a famous local author and historian of the unusual, and this development was built on an Indian burial ground.”
Miranda shrugs and laughs. “Who cares? It worked in Poltergeist.” And without another word she turns and knocks on the door.
Freddie opens the door. He looks dubiously at Miranda. He looks even more dubiously at me.
Miranda says to him, “Little boy, would you tell your parents that your sister Jane has brought a guest home?”
Freddie bristles when he hears Miranda call him a little boy. He turns to the living room and says, “Mom, Jane’s here with some creepy old lady.” He flashes a self-satisfied smile at me and heads toward the kitchen. I hope he chokes on something.
My mother comes to the door. She looks at Miranda as dubiously as Freddie did. I do the introductions. “Mom, this is Miranda Milan, the historian and author of Strange Times in Netherfield. Miranda, this is my mother, Roberta Levecq.”
I can see my mother is torn between disliking the looks of Miranda, and wanting to have a “celebrity” in the house. She plumps for the latter. “How nice to meet you, Ms. Milan. Jane just adored your book. Please come on in.” She turns away to go into the living room. Miranda turns to me and silently mouths “She just adored your book,” causing me to break up laughing as we go in.
Once we’re inside, my mother indicates for us to sit, looking worriedly at me, because I can’t stop laughing. But one must be polite. She waits until we’re seated until asking, “Is there something we can do for you, Ms. Milan, or is this just a social visit?”
Miranda considers that for a moment. “A bit of both, Ms. Levecq.”
“Please call me Roberta.”
“Thank you, Roberta. And of course you may call me Miranda.” Miranda crosses her legs and begins her pitch. “Jane’s been asking me all sorts of questions about Netherfield, and I casually mentioned to her that this development used to be the site of an old Indian burial ground. I was wondering if you’ve seen or heard anything odd.”
My mother’s polite smile dies. She can’t help but shoot an angry look at me before replying, “Why no, nothing.” She sees me about to say something and hurriedly adds, “Well, a few odd noises, but that’s just possibly the house settling. New house and all that.”
Miranda realizes she’s made a mistake and tries to patch things up. “Or possibly the underground stream that runs through this development caused the noises. It’s hard to compare the landscape to the way it used to be, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually runs right under your house. And people make up all sorts of silly stories when they hear noises. You wouldn’t believe how much of my work involves throwing some light on such situations. Rumors can be so devastating. May I just look around?”
My mother still doesn’t like it. “Well, um . . .”
Feverishly inventing something to change the topic, I interject, “Besides, Mom, I want to show Miranda this project I’m doing for the end of the school year. Okay?”
This puts things on an acceptable basis. My mom says, “Okay.”
So I jump up. “This way, Miranda,” I say, and start heading to my room.
Miranda says, “Thank you, Roberta,” and gets up to follow me. She gets as far as partway down the hallway to my bedroom and lets out an exclamation.
I turn around. Miranda’s acting weird, sort of like she’s trying to feel out a pane of glass in the middle of the hall. My mother comes to the end of the hall looking puzzled. Miranda must have heard her coming, because she turns around and says, “It wouldn’t surprise me if the stream runs right under your house here, Roberta.”
My mother looks relieved. “Well, that’s interesting.”
Miranda goes on, “I’d either have to survey the grounds or take an aerial photo to be sure, but I’d say if you here any strange noises coming from this hallway, it’s probably the stream.” She turns around to face me, “So where is this project you want to show me?”
I lead Miranda into my bedroom, closing the door behind me. The moment I turn around, Miranda whirls on me. “What’s this about noises in the house?”
“Well, um, there’s a sobbing ghost, I think, and some other things.”
Miranda tosses her hands up in the air. “And you were going to tell me about this when?”
“Shhh, my mother will hear you,” I caution, and then go on, “And if I haven’t told you before, it’s because you did something to me that scared me off. Remember?”
Miranda makes a face, as if my point is irrelevant. “Well, you’re not that way now and haven’t been since Genevieve.” While I’m wondering who Genevieve is, Miranda seems preoccupied with a thought that’s struck her. “But then why didn’t my spell warn me you were . . . wait, have these things threatened you?”
I think about it. “No, not directly, not until this devastating spirit showed up. But they’ve been damned creepy.”
“Ah.” Miranda looks around, sees my desk chair, pulls it out and sits on it. “Sit down and tell me about these things you’ve been seeing in the house.”
So I sit down and tell her, best as I can remember. I have to go back to my diary once or twice; Miranda is amused to see I keep it locked up. Otherwise she just listens or ask questions, most of which I don’t know the answer to, like whether the little girl is a ghost or spirit.
At the end of my story, Miranda stands up. “I need to get back to my shop.” She pauses, looks pensive, and then yanks a ring off one of her fingers and hands it to me. I take it, and she says, “Put it on.” It’s a heavy silver ring, with a seven-pointed star drawn on its face. I put it on. Nothing happens. I look up at Miranda. She just nods. “It will protect you, I hope, until we can make better plans.”
“What about my mother, who’s also heard the sobbing, and my other family members?”
Miranda dismisses my concern. “I don’t think they’re in danger, just you, though for the life of me I can’t figure out why you’re attracting all this attention. Anyhow, come visit me later today. Make it after three. I should have taken care of Mrs. Hunter by then, and I don’t want you mixed up in that.”
“My client tortured by the devastating spirit.” With that she turns and goes over to the door, opens it and walks out. I scurry to catch up to her, to find her standing in the hallway, putting her glasses back on, saying to herself, “What the fuck is going on?”
My mother comes into the hallway with Stan the next moment. She sees us and says, “Are you leaving already?”
Miranda politely replies, “I’ve given Jane some more ideas for her project. Now I need to get back to work.”
My mother’s not through. “Let me introduce you to my husband, Stan. Stan, this is Miranda Milan. She’s the one who wrote the book about this town Jane was reading when we first arrived here.”
Stan steps forward to shake Miranda’s hand and says, “Nice to meet you. Someone died in your family recently?”
Trust Stan to make a lame joke. Miranda sweetly replies, “My black cat. I had to sacrifice him under the last full moon.”
Stan steps back a bit, unsure how to take this. My mother is equally bewildered, but gamely says, “You must come for dinner sometime.”
Miranda replies, “Of course. I’ll let Jane work out the details between us.”
Stan interjects, “And I promise we won’t have cat on the menu.”
I do not want to hear what Miranda will say next, so I hurriedly say, “My mom does a great spicy chicken dish.”
This leads to a quick discussion about menu and times, and then Miranda leaves, without any further remarks that could get me into trouble. I heave a sigh as my mother closes the door.
And then my mother turns to me and asks, “So what is this project you’re working on?”
I make it to Miranda’s just after three. She’s waiting for me. She lets me in, puts the closed sign in the window, and takes me to her “consultation room,” which turns out to be the room in which she fought the devastator with the crystal ball. I look around a bit. There’s the table in the middle of the room with three regular chairs, and one that’s more like a throne, which Miranda sits in. The table’s covered in a black cloth, with the crystal ball on Miranda’s side in its stand. The room is ornamented with magical designs and artifacts.
I look around and ask, “Are these real, or just for show?”
Miranda takes her seat. “Both. Some are real, some are there just to impress customers. Sit down, Jane. We’ve got a lot to cover.”
So I take the chair opposite Miranda. I’ve got a million questions.
Which she short-circuits by her next statement. “This is getting too complicated for me to handle alone. So I’m going to need help. I need another magician. And right now, the handiest person for the job is your friend.”
I have no idea who she could be talking about. It must show in my face, because Miranda adds, “Your friend, Cynthia Van Schacht.”
End of chapter eleven
(Say what?? I think we have a contest here to see who is the biggest loon in this story. I thought Cindy had a lock on it, but Miranda’s making a strong bid for preeminence. We’ll have to find out in the next chapter whether Miranda’s just exercising her sense of humor, or taking out her sanity and letting it run loose while she speaks.)