Chapter 4: Never the right amount of information
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
There are many ways to ruin one’s life. Miscommunication is at the heart of several of them. Surprisingly, accurate communications can do the very same thing. Just ask my phone.
My phone currently has 23 unopened text message on it. I look at the list in the privacy of my bedroom and feel ill. Three are from Eric. They will not be answered, ever. I may never even look at them. I don’t care what sort of apology he wants to offer. Nineteen of the remainder are from girlfriends back in Boston. They are about me and Eric. Or, to be precise, they are about the couple that is Eric and Double-D, and me as the odd person out. Half will humiliate me with false pity, half will humiliate me with real pity. I don’t know which is worse.
One message is from a local phone number. I decide to look at it. It’s from Rev. Honoria Blood, saying that if I want to come over this evening, she’s free to talk to me. I wasn’t really serious about talking to her about Miranda Milan, but between what happened earlier today in the coffee shop and not wanting to read my social doom, I decide it’s a good idea and text her back saying I’ll be over at 7:30.
The weekday family meal is supper, served at 6 p.m. on the dot. Freddie can hardly wait for us all to sit down before telling us, “Some crazy girl set off an alarm at school today.”
This is news to the rest of the family, even Donna, because she goes to the regional high school in another town. Mom glances over at me. “Know anything about this, dear?”
Yup. How do I put this without making Cindy sound like a psycho? “It was a girl in my class, Cindy Van Schacht. She meant it as a joke. It wasn’t a real alarm, just a siren.”
Stan and Mom are willing to let this topic die. Not Freddie. “Neat. Did everyone scream and run out of the room?”
I glare at him. “No. No one was harmed, no one got trampled, and the FBI didn’t send in a SWAT team.”
Now Donna decides to chip in. “Cindy is Jane’s new friend.” Thank you, Donna. Maybe I do want to be on unfriendly terms with you.
That gets Mom’s attention. She gets a worried look on her face and turns to me. “Just what kind of girl is this Cindy Whatever?”
I glare at Donna before turning to answer Mom. “It was just a joke, Mom. Besides, Cindy’s sister Maureen is friends with Donna.” Payback, bitch.
Mom raises an eyebrow to Donna, who now looks as if she’d rather leave the table. “They’re just a local family, Mom. Maureen’s OK. And Cindy . . . well, I guess she and Jane must like each other’s sense of humor.” Donna looks over at me with a half-hearted smile, like I’m supposed to admire the joke, sees I’m steaming, and drops her eyes.
Stan tries to make things better. “I see, this is sort of like Jane’s screaming the other night.” He gives an uneasy chuckle. God, Stan, can you ever say the right thing?
My mother gives me a worried look. Unlike everyone else, she’s heard the sobbing herself. My experience bothers her more than she’ll admit. “I think we’ve heard enough about Jane’s screaming,” she says in a tone warning Stan he’s treading on dangerous ground.
For all I don’t like Stan, I admit that he always defers to my mother’s better judgment in such matters. So he introduces a new subject, not realizing he’s about to set off some more land mines. “So how goes the local history reading, Jane?”
Deer in headlights. How in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea do I answer this one? I look over to Donna. She knows. And for once she gives me one of our old gestures, the one meaning “make your play, I’ll back you up.” Maybe sisterhood isn’t dead, after all. Relieved, I say, “Oh, fine. I actually saw the author in a coffee shop this afternoon.” I quickly add, “And no, ma, I was not drinking coffee. Cindy bought me a hot chocolate because she wants to be my friend.”
Stan rolls on, oblivious. “I was looking at your book last night, Jane. It looks interesting. Is this Miranda author an interesting person, too?”
Donna rolls her eyes and stifles a laugh. I pick my way carefully. “I guess you could say so. Miranda Milan is like this total goth. She’s all dressed in black.” And then, to spite/amuse Donna, because I’m sort of still ticked at her bringing up my friendship with Cindy, I add, “And she’s got a way with words.”
Mom smiles at that. “Imagine, a historical author in town. We’ll have to invite her over for dinner sometime and enjoy her fascinating conversation.”
Donna loses it and barely gets her napkin up to her mouth in time to keep from spraying food all over the table as she chokes off her laughs.
I’m getting ready to go out to see Rev. Honoria Blood when Donna knocks on the door and sticks her head in. Door does not equal privacy for me, I guess. She asks, “Can we talk?”
I shake my head and am brusque. “I’m going out. Later, maybe.” I open the door the rest of the way and walk into the hallway.
Donna catches me. I turn around. She looks concerned. But she doesn’t want to be overheard, so she almost whispers, “Look, Jane, did I do something wrong? I mean, apart from that bit about Cindy? You seemed pretty annoyed with me this afternoon.”
“Why, thank you for noticing, finally,” I offer with my best sarcasm. “It’s only been half a year.” And I turn and head off without looking to see what reaction Donna has.
Rev. Honoria Blood wears heels when she’s in her robes. I know because when she greets me at her door, she is at least two inches shorter than she was on Sunday. Best guess: she’s 5’2”. When you’re as short as I am, you notice things like this. I’ve been contemplating the advantages of having my DNA spliced with a giraffe’s to be able to talk to adults eye-to-eye.
We get settled down with cookies and herbal tea. Rev. Blood starts off the conversation. “So are you a Jane, a Janet, a Janice, or a janissary?”
Well, you see, Rev. Blood, my parents didn’t want me, so they sold me to a group of Zen Buddhists warriors. Thanks to their rigorous yet casual training, I can not only achieve a state of omniscient ignorance through meditation, but can cause others to do so as well. At one time we thought we had conquered France, but it turned out it was just August.
Almost true, Jane, almost true. But not the story you want to tell Rev. Blood. “Plain Jane,” I reply. “My mom and dad were splitting up, and couldn’t agree on my name, so that’s what I got. Or so they tell me.” It’s better than the other story, which is that a nurse remarked on how I was the plainest baby she’d ever seen. “And Honoria?”
Rev. Blood softly laughs. “A father who loved Roman history. I have brothers named Brutus and Hadrian. I went by Nora for many years, but now I stick with the full Honoria. It makes people remember me.”
“Like Miranda Milan and her name,” I add.
Honoria laughs again, but this one is ghostly. “Like Miranda, our topic for discussion. I wanted to talk to you about her because Miranda is . . . well, eccentric, and sometimes short with people. I don’t want you to get off on the wrong foot with her when you go talk to her.”
I decide to wait to tell Honoria about my encounter with Miranda today until she’s given me her take on Miranda. “I’ve been told to stay away from her. I’ve also been told she grows pot and stands on the town common in the nude.”
Honoria does not laugh at that. “That’s the sort of thing I wanted to talk to you about, right there. Miranda did once engage in some religious ceremony on the town common, and she was nude at the time. Or so I’ve been told, I wasn’t here then, but it was in all the papers. Miranda got arrested and sued the town. After a great deal of litigation, they reached an unofficial compromise: Miranda would take her celebrations to less public places, and the town would leave her alone.”
“And the pot?” I prompt.
Honoria gives me an appraising look. “If you want to get on Miranda’s bad side, ask her to sell you some. I guess that’s really my message to you, Jane. I think you’d enjoy talking to Miranda about her research into Netherfield’s history. And I know Miranda would enjoy such a talk. But stick to the history. Don’t bring up rumors to Miranda. I’m sorry to say this, but she can be petty sometimes, and if she takes a dislike to you, she almost never gets over it.”
Well, in that case Maureen Van Schacht must be toast. And I notice Honoria didn’t give me a straight answer about the pot. I’m going to take that as a “yes.” Trying to look innocent, I ask, “People keep talking about Miranda as if she’s trouble, or she brings trouble. What’s that all about?”
Although she’s trying to do her best to hide it, Honoria Blood is looking uncomfortable. “Oh, Miranda also works as a fortune teller, and it started rumors that she’s a witch. Thanks to the history which I’m sure you’ve read about, the town has a nervous preoccupation with witches. So anyone who’s on bad terms with Miranda, and that is far too many people, attribute all their misfortunes to her and her witchcraft. It’s nonsense.”
Nonsense with a coffee-colored stain on wool. I decide I’d rather not tell Honoria Blood about today’s events. So we chat a bit more, and then I take my leave. And as I walk home, I wonder to myself if Rev. Honoria Blood ever got Miranda Milan annoyed, and what misfortune befell her.
Cindy has to go to some appointment Wednesday afternoon, so I’m on my own until dinnertime. This seems like a good time to check out Miranda Milan, if there is such a thing as a good time in Netherfield. There’s something about this town that would probably make even a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras depressing. Or maybe it’s just me. Mardi Gras and Double-D: you’re getting a breast inferiority complex, Jane. At least your nipples aren’t “innies.” Is that actually possible? And how do you breast-feed that way? Stick in a straw?
I decide this train of thought isn’t going anywhere. And so far, neither am I, standing out in front of the school. It would be nice to have a friend to walk with, but so far it’s only Cindy. Maybe I need to leave this town, ride off into the sunset on a llama, and rejoin my fellow Zen Buddhist warriors as we meditate our way to world dominion.
Instead, I head over into the western part of town and find Miranda’s store front. The neighborhood looks the same today, although the guy hanging out in front of the convenience store is different. This one looks like an employee on his smoke break. I remember Mom doing that, years ago.
I stand in front of Miranda’s door. According to her posted hours, she’s in, but you can’t tell that from outside. I stand outside the door, debating whether to knock. And then I change my mind. These are her business hours, while all I want to do is talk about history. I should look up her phone number and call her, not bother her now. With a feeling of relief, I turn to leave.
And find myself face to face with Miranda Milan, who is standing less than a foot away. My heart catches in my throat. I try to take a step back, but I seem rooted to the spot. She looks like some sort of alien with those glasses on, an alien trying to pose as human. I can’t read Miranda’s expression well enough to know what she’s feeling. How did she creep up on me? What does she think of me?
And then she speaks. “You want your fortune told, Jane Harris.” It is a statement, not a question.
How does she know my name? Who cares? And why does she think I want my fortune told? Maybe because I’m standing at her door. And I did bring money with me to pay for it. But right now, Miranda Milan disturbs me, really, really disturbs me. Doesn’t she realize how uncomfortable it is to be standing this close to some stranger? I want to be away from her. So I lie. “I have no money on me.”
She shrugs. “That’s okay, if you don’t pay me, I don’t have to tell you anything I don’t want to.” And with that she slips around me and opens her door, stepping inside. She turns to look at me. I stand there, uncertain what to do. Miranda shakes her head and says, “Either you want your fortune told, or you’re going home. Either come in, or close the door as you leave.” And she turns and walks inside and vanishes in the darkness.
I hesitate. This is all too weird. But I’m curious, too. And I get this feeling that I’m fated to do this. So I walk in. As I’m shutting the door behind me, I see Miranda’s phone number on it. I could have entered it into my phone and left and called her later. Why didn’t I? Why don’t I even remember seeing her phone number there?
Enough questions. I turn around. Almost immediately a light goes on down the hall in a doorway to the left. I walk over and step into the room. It’s a small room and an odd one. It is a cube, really, as tall as it is wide and long. No windows, one single naked light bulb in the ceiling. And all the walls, the ceiling, and the floor are covered in patterns of figures. All the patterns form spirals. I don’t really get a good look at them because when I look at the floor the spiral design seems to be spinning underneath me. It’s making me dizzy. I want it to stop, I need to have it stop or I am going to get sick. I have to move to the center of the spiral to make it stop, to keep myself from falling. I walk straight toward the center, only I’m not sure if I’m walking straight or along a big loopy curve because of the way the spirals turn. But I reach the center. Abruptly, my head yanks up so I’m looking at a design on the wall in front of me. It’s a pair of eyes. I can’t see anything else. And I can’t move or talk, either.
From behind me comes Miranda’s voice. “If you moved, it would interfere with my reading your fortune.” I can hear the leather soles of her shoes ring against the floor as she slowly walks clockwise around to my front. She stops exactly where the eyes are, so I find myself looking into her face. Hard to tell with those glasses, but she looks displeased. “This isn’t working properly. You’re a hard one, Jane Harris. I’m going to have to do a more thorough reading. And for that I’m going to have to take my glasses off to look at you. So, time to close your eyes.” She steps forward, and with two black-painted fingertips does just that. Naturally, I can’t open them now.
I can hear Miranda step backward after she does that, and for maybe three seconds, nothing happens. And then it’s like an incredibly intense search light is turned on me. A zillion x-rays seem to be shooting right through me, exposing everything about me, even my darkest secrets. I feel naked, exposed. And it hurts!
It seems to last for hours of agony, but it is probably more like half a minute. And then it just stops. I can move again, but I’m so shaken and weak that I just fall on my hands and knees. I can hear my heart racing and I have to take deep breaths.
After a few minutes of this, I open my eyes and stand up, only to find Miranda once again standing directly in front of me. I want to ask her what she did to me, but she looks so forbidding that I can’t. Instead, in a shaky voice, I ask, “So what’s my fortune?”
Miranda’s expression changes from a determined one to a frown. “It’s a bad one. I figured it would be.”
Impatiently I ask, “Well, what is it?”
Miranda’s frown deepens. “You didn’t pay, so I don’t have to tell you. Now go away.”
This is just too much! I let this woman look into my soul, which is not what I bargained for, and this is all she has to say to me? I let my anger show as I tell her, “It’s my fortune. I deserve to know, especially after what you put me through, whatever that was.”
Miranda shakes her head. “I don’t want you here. Go away. Last warning.”
I shriek, “Or else what? You’ll tell me my bad fortune?”
Instead of answering me, Miranda just tips her glasses down so I can see her eyes. At least I think I must have seen her eyes. I really don’t remember. Because the next thing I know I am running past the town common, heading home as fast as I can, terrified of . . . something.
Try as I might, I cannot remember what I saw or why it scared me. But I am afraid of Miranda Milan. My mom asks me at dinner what I did this afternoon, and my throat almost closes up in terror just thinking about telling her the truth. I have to lie. Later, after dinner, I find I can’t open Strange Times in Netherfield, because I know Miranda wrote it.
It gets worse at bedtime. I turn off the light and immediately have to turn it on again. Eventually I rummage through my stuff and find an old nightlight, plug it in and turn it on. Only then can I turn off the light. Even so, I can’t close my eyes, not yet. I take to reciting the old rhymes, over and over again, until their rhythm lulls me to sleep.
Miranda Milan, child of fright, don’t take my soul on this very night!
End of chapter four
(Confound it, I said this was a comedy. And now this? Jane gets the equivalent of a nervous breakdown, and we’re supposed to laugh? Though given Miranda’s fashion sense, it may be that Jane recoiled in horror from finding out that Miranda wears black eye makeup and black contact lenses. No matter, in any case, I’m sure Jane will be back next week with more of her story. She is not going have us go away thinking she can be scared like a little kid.)