Okay, it’s been nearly a year since I last advanced this story, but somehow my adventures with The Wicked Lender Of The West got me back into the groove, and I did some major renovation on this section on the plane, then tidied it up over the past few days.
In my prior career, the few children I’d had non-trivial encounters with had been deceptive, manipulative, and deeply suspicious of women like me. With good reason, since I usually ran into them while stealing their daddies. The unfortunate result was that I simply wasn’t prepared for Kit’s brand of total honesty. When she said wicked stepmother, she meant Wicked Stepmother.
Ninety seconds after Aunt Sally said a cheerful hello, we were back in the car, fleeing at high speed. I’m not really sure how we made it to the house. I mean, obviously she drove, but I was too busy wrangling a hysterical Kit to figure out how she’d managed it after being whammied to the eyeballs. You see, the Wicked Stepmother had turned out to be an actual wicked witch.
I got the first clue when I tried to get Kit out of the car. Used to be I could wrestle any man in the universe and end up on top, but getting a hexed and howling little girl into a come-along was not in my professional toolbox. Sally just opened the door, laid a hand on her forehead, and she was out like a light. Interesting.
Once safely behind locked doors, we put Kit to bed in my room, then went into the kitchen. Sally waved me over to the table, and I watched silently as she went through a calming ritual of ridiculously-precise coffee-making. I understood the need; the ground wasn’t quite shifting under my feet, but the story was, as if the Power pulling the strings wasn’t quite sure which way it should go.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one with suspicions. She brought over two double espressos, sliding one in front of me without a word about stunting my growth. She sipped, I gulped, so I got to ask first. “How did you do it, Sally?”
“Me? That witch hit us with a binding that stuffed my head with cotton and convinced me to walk right into that house. If you hadn’t kicked her so hard…”
“Maybe I’m just stubborn. And since when does squeaky-clean Sally Sanders believe in black magic? That’s not the sort of thing adoption agencies approve of when handing out little girls. You did acquire me legally, didn’t you? I wasn’t here at the time, so I wouldn’t know.”
Oops. I really shouldn’t have said that. Bye-bye cover story, hello questions I didn’t have good answers for.
I couldn’t tell which hit her harder, the caffeine or my words. “What do you mean you weren’t there? We talked for hours at the orphanage, and it was like we were made for each other! The old man said you’d been through a tough time and nobody wanted you, but he didn’t think you were a bad kid; you just needed a loving home, and I was determined to give it to you. What kind of game are you playing?”
She looked at me like I was some kind of changeling, which was basically correct. I didn’t have to ask what her “old man” looked like. I knew what he was, and if I ever got within range, he was getting a hard-shoed little-girl kick for that nobody-wanted-you crack.
Oh, well, in for an inch, in for the shaft. “Not me, sister, I just met you this morning. You got played by a Power, but if it’s any consolation, he’s one of the nicer ones, so if he shoved us together it was for our mutual benefit. But you’re dodging my question. What’s your game?”
I’d rather be asking questions than answering them, so I pushed. “You’re too good to be true, Sally. You’re young, sweet, gorgeous, a terrific cook, motherly-but-not-smotherly, and you’ve got a house, a car, and half the men in town sniffing your tail. You’re a catch, honey. How are you single in 1956? What are you up to, playing house with Little Orphan Annie and hiding an industrial-strength sex toy under the bed? Oh yeah, I found it.”
She squirmed a bit at that. “That’s not… okay, maybe sometimes… I… It’s complicated. You’re too young to understand.”
I laughed so hard I fell out of my chair. Dragging myself back upright, I shoved the coffee cup across the table and said, “make me another double, sweetheart, this is gonna be a long night.”
As she turned toward the stove, inspiration struck, and I hit her from behind. Bitch, remember? “Let me guess, you’re a time traveler.”
Good thing linoleum was soft, because that meant the coffee cup didn’t break when she dropped it and whipped her head around to look at me. “And don’t try to spare me the complications, I’m a lot older than you look.”
Her eyes went wide. “Who… what are you?”
“Impatient. Now hurry up with the java and the explanations; I hear little girls get cranky if they stay up past their bedtimes.”
Sally got busy with the giant steam engine (hmmm, were lattes a thing yet?) and started to spill. “Do you know what parallel worlds are?”
“Sideways time travel, basic multiverse stuff. So, you and your mega-vibe are from another Earth, huh? Similar enough that you can pass for a local, but different enough that you weren’t expecting to run into a witch. And you’ve been here long enough to have convincing paperwork and a fan club.”
Her hands were shaking, but my double espresso was still coming. Y’know, I was actually kind of glad things had gone tits-up tonight, or it might have been months before I found out Sally’s coffee was as good as her cooking.
“I’m a sociologist, and, yes, a witch, but not like that… creature. We don’t do mind-control. It’s not just illegal, it’s wrong, evil. I’ve been here for nearly two years now, helping document the differences between worlds. The prevailing theory is that it’s simple probability divergence, where worlds split off every time non-trivial decisions are made but collapse back into a smaller number as the changes average out over time, leaving behind little inconsistencies that get dismissed as coincidence or déjà vu.”
Huh; not bad for a bunch of mortals, and her academic tone increased my estimate of her intelligence quite a bit. No flies on Aunt Sally. “And it sounds like you’re part of a group that disagrees?”
“Yes. The half-dozen worlds we’ve explored all show signs of deliberate tampering to set them on different paths. Including our own, which could cause some serious social problems if we went public. The truly frightening part is that some of it seems to be retroactive, with real time-travellers tweaking the knobs.”
Damn, these people were good. It couldn’t be an accident that the Old Man had hooked us up. Was this life really my Graduation Present, or was I his latest pawn in a game he was running on the other Powers? I mean, this was some serious shit: the kids were breaking out of the playground, and he was in on it.
“Well, looks like this is your lucky night, Sally. I’m one of those ‘tweakers’. Or at least I used to be.”
Dammit, I really should have waited to say that until after she’d delivered my new coffee.
I’ve got some tone-tweaking to do for the next part, and some as-you-know-bob to get rid of, and I think I’ve figured out a new goal for the Wicked Stepmother that fixes the scoping problem. When you’re only six, a little Evil goes a long way.
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