Chapter One: Miranda Wakes Up

Miranda - October 2017

My toothbrush was gone.

As a scientist, I needed a certain amount of evidence to prove a theory. Particularly a theory such as this one: I was losing my mind. The missing toothbrush was Exhibit A, Fact Number One, the first piece of a puzzle.

I stood in my bathroom, cold, staring at the empty holder where the toothbrush used to be.

I remembered buying it at the dentist’s office. “You’re brushing too hard,” the hygienist had said. “The electric one will help you be more efficient.” I purchased it with a healthy degree of skepticism, but also with a conviction that it might work if recommended by an expert in this field. I trust experts. I worked long and hard in order to become one, in my own field.

But that was gone. And I couldn’t ignore several other facts: my heavy breasts. I did not remember feeling such pain, ever in my life, and I was not expecting a period.

The fat around my waist.

The sweatpants that held the fat, so lovingly and softly, like a cloud or a gentle made-in-Taiwan rug.

My mind was fuzzy, like I’d woken from one of our experiments at MindTech, like I’d been my own patient. I was gathering enough evidence for a white paper. Possibly a peer-reviewed journal article.

I padded down the stairs in my bare feet, tucking my sweater around me. Coffee would help to solve this problem. Coffee had a way of sweeping the slate, burning with its bitter and cleansing taste. Coffee would return my theory to its ephemeral status, and restore my sanity in a single sip.

When I rummaged through my cabinets, I found old cans of corn, unopened tikka masala sauce, vanilla extract. No coffee. Fact Number Two: I was indeed losing my mind. I could only find a sad old bag of decaf stuck in the back of the highest cupboard. I would never drink decaf - honestly, I didn’t even know why it existed. Someone must have brought it to a family party long ago. I shuddered and pitched it.

It was October in my quaint suburban homestead, the trademark chill of fall seeping under my windowsills and thresholds. I needed to get warm. I needed a shower and a hot drink. I was used to being up at night and staying up late on account of my job as a pseudo-counselor and a scientist who messes with people’s brains. But the morning had never felt this alien.

I picked up my phone, scrolled through my texts. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I tapped out a message to Lauren, my best friend. If I were going for coffee and she found out, she might come after me if I didn’t bring her some. I didn’t want to take that chance.

I was trying to remember if I had given my number to the guy from last night. I supposed that if I had, he would call. Unless he didn’t want to, in which case it didn’t matter. There were always more boys to save. I had a lot to atone for.

The phone jumped, vibrating in the urgent manner I had expected from my erstwhile toothbrush. The screen lit with Lauren’s name. “Hey,” I answered.

“Where have you been?”

Fact Number Three: The unjustified level of emotion in her voice. My theory was turning into a hypothesis.

I work for a company that specializes in mental manipulation. So I wasn’t surprised at my current situation, although my alarm was growing by degrees. Namely, because I didn’t know why I had been targeted. An experiment gone wrong, most likely. My boss, Helen, might be able to fix it. “Might” being the key word.

I tried to explain this to Lauren, but she was having none of it. As she jabbered into my ear, I distanced myself, took myself away. When I’m feeling stressed, I ground myself. Both feet on the floor, my bare toes wiggling on the laminate. Awareness of the sounds and smells around me. I wanted to block out the world, this world I didn’t feel certain of.

I’m used to being certain about things.

And yet I do like a good mystery - when it doesn’t have anything to do with me. I like to tease my clients’ histories apart, removing the bad stuff bit by bit, exposing it so it can’t hurt anymore. Treating it like the poison it is. But those are other people’s stories. I’m supposed to fade into the background. You don’t see me, because I was never there.

My discomfort in this particular situation ranged from my waistband to my disorganized mind. I did not like anything about it.

I tuned back in to Lauren. “…leave for the better part of the year and not say anything?”

I took a long breath. “Would it make things better if I came over?”

“Bring coffee.” She hung up.

I live in Cuyahoga Falls, a town just outside of Akron. It has small, cozy houses like mine, apartment buildings, and huge houses in developments. It has dives and fancy wine bars. It has build-your-own-pizza, a chichi grocery store, and an Indian place that looks like it couldn’t pass a building inspection.

Lauren’s house is one of the huge ones. It may as well have been a castle, since I would never live in a place like this, with its vaulted ceilings and bathroom just for guests. She flung open the door, her eyes lit with a tempered rage as I held the cups out to her. My penance. “Come in, come in. The baby’s asleep.”

Baby? What baby? Did they get a dog? I thought I remembered her talking about that, the last time I’d seen her. Which was yesterday and felt like a hundred years ago.

I followed her into the dining room, where Jim sat with his Mac and a mug in front of him. Shoot. I snapped my fingers. “I forgot. Jim, I’m so sorry. I should have brought you some.”

He got up and put a skinny hand on my shoulder. I tensed, my own shoulders tight. Then he stepped back. “What’s up?”

I shook my head. “I don’t even know, man. I don’t even know.”

“It’s fine.” He waved a hand. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Lauren and I took seats at the dining table. I loved coming here, loved the comfort of their beautiful house and warm company. It was one of those places where I always felt safe. I was determined to ignore the oddness that poked at the edges of my consciousness. This was not the place for those feelings.

Lauren and Jim exchanged glances. “We haven’t been sure where you went,” she said finally, carefully, as if she had taken all the words she had thrown at me and wrapped them in a neat package.

“Where I went?” I looked between their concerned faces. “I went to Ethan’s last night after work, like I always do. The bar.”

An unearthly wail echoed from upstairs. Lauren groaned and put her head on the table. “Just let me sit here for one minute. All I ask for is one minute.”

Jim got up. “I’ll get her. You talk.” He climbed the stairs, his steps heavy.

I turned to my friend, peered at her. “What is going on?” I had to face it. If there was a problem here, it was mine. I took a sip of my coffee. It was getting cold, the warmth I had sought gone so fast.

Jim came back down the stairs clutching a small, squalling bundle to his chest. He handed it to Lauren, who sighed and sat back in her chair. She leaned over and grabbed a round pillow from the chair beside her, positioned it around her waist, and attached the baby to her breast. I watched the process, dumbfounded, and my body ached in response. “Wait. You have a baby now? When were you pregnant?” The words tumbled out of my mouth in clumsy, staggering succession.

“You missed it,” Lauren said. She reached for her own cooling coffee with one hand, the other encircling her breast as the baby gulped. “I mean, Miranda, I know you weren’t happy about it. But you didn’t have to disappear.”

“What?”

They looked at each other again, as if they shared a secret and could discuss it via mind-meld.

“Miranda, are you OK?” Lauren asked. “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be mean. I’m really tired, I haven’t slept in days.” She drained her cup, knocking it all the way back.

“I don’t remember you being pregnant.”

“Well, you haven’t been here.” She looked at the table, skirting around a tone just shy of accusatory. I held my ground.

“I was here yesterday,” I said. “We went to get Mexican before my shift. You had a day off from work. You definitely weren’t pregnant, and you didn’t have a baby.” She had been complaining about her job, at one of the hospitals in downtown Akron. She loved what she did, working with sick kids in the pediatric ER, but she was tired of the people she worked with. She was trying to decide if it was worth staying. I told her to take a vacation day, to clear her mind and do something for herself, so we did.

“No. I haven’t seen you for months.” She looked down, and I did too. All I could see was the baby’s fuzzy dark hair, peeking out from above the patterned pillow. Lauren stroked the baby’s cheek with the C-curve of her hand. “I told you. You were weird about it. It was like you didn’t want me to be pregnant. But you knew we’d been trying… I thought you’d be supportive.”

“I don’t remember any of that. You were thinking about getting a dog.” I pulled my phone out and tapped at it. The screen read 11:45am. Saturday, October 28. “I’m so confused.”

Lauren unlatched the baby and pulled her close. I examined the tiny face for the first time, the fine rendering of my friend’s own features. Lauren tried to laugh, but it came out as a bark. “Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to be psychic?”

“Bring that up, why don’t you,” I muttered. Now was not the time to discuss my failed mentalist career. That was a relic, a past long buried. Now was the time to figure out why I couldn’t remember what Lauren was talking about. I watched the baby, a concerned look crossing her small face. “So you don’t remember going to Mexican with me yesterday? The new place off the traffic circle?”

“I hate that goddamn traffic circle,” Jim muttered. “That place isn’t new. It’s been around for like a year.”

“No, it hasn’t.” I finished my coffee, my brow so furrowed I was afraid grooves were etched into my forehead. “It just opened. You said you wanted to try it. I came down here, we went, and I left for my shift at MindTech. That was it.”

“We went there, but that was forever ago. Like I just said. Almost a year ago.”

“What year is it?” A surreal pain had settled into my bones.

“2017,” Lauren said. “October 28. What year did you think it was?”

I didn’t answer. I stared at the blond wood table, at the baby who had gestated and been born, at my friend who had endured morning sickness and whatever other ailments pregnant women face, for nine months, without me.

Next Chapter: Chapter Two: Sad Ben