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 spent the weekend reading a beta copy of a new Please Don’t Tell My Parents book.”
Specifically, Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m Queen Of The Dead.
Meanwhile, the previous book, which I haven’t read yet (except for a draft of the first chapter), comes out next week: Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Work for a Supervillain.
Mission accomplished and new mysteries unlocked, we parted from the delightful company of Miss Jemima “Jem” Bobo, loaded up the trunk with our loot, and planned our next move.
Sally’s thoughts were completely compatible with mine. “Why don’t you come home with us for supper, Kit? You could even spend the night.”
“Oh, I’d love to, Miss Sanders, but I think I should go straight home now. She… my stepmother will be quite concerned if I’m out after dark.” Sally didn’t need to feel the sudden squeeze of Kit’s hand to notice her distress.
“Well, then, let’s take you home and introduce ourselves, to assure your mother that you’ve been in good hands, and see how she feels about that sleepover!” Clever Sally cheerfully swept us into the back seat and asked Kit where she lived.
“By Oak and Ash.”
Sally and I both twitched at that, although it must have been for different reasons. Maybe it wasn’t as nice a neighborhood as ours.
If someone had accused me of being self-centered and egotistical, I’d have congratulated them on their ability to recognize basic laws of the universe. Mockingly, of course. I’d naturally assumed that the Powers had assigned me a friend, and it had never crossed my mind that Kit had her own reasons to seek me out, or her own agency, for that matter.
The mix of reluctance and fear on her face made me oddly homesick. For there, I mean, which wasn’t a very nice place, although admittedly some of that was just me. In any case, I could tell that there was at least one Mean Girl waiting at home for Kit, and I was itching for a fight. Not out of any mortal concern for a friend, of course; I was pretty sure I hadn’t gone native yet. No, this clearly fell under “hands off my stuff” rules. 99% sure. 95%-ish.
I whispered my question, though I was sure Sally was listening in. “Why don’t you want to go home, Kit? What are you afraid of?”
Her hand trembled in mine, and she looked down and away. “My wicked stepmother.”
Sally introduced her to us as Jemima Bobo, Jem for short. I was pretty sure she wasn’t in the pancake business, and I was certainly in no position to make fun of anyone’s name, but I was surprised to find that Kit didn’t react, either.
We found an out-of-the-way table where the two grown-ups could chat without scaring the horses, and Sally sent us off to fetch drinks. My partner-in-waitressing was happy for the excuse to leave, which puzzled me. “What’s up with you, Kit? You’re acting like you’ve seen a dark-but-extremely-friendly ghost.”
“It’s just, I’ve never actually seen a… colored person up close before, much less spoken to one. How did you do it so naturally?”
“Wow, if you were any whiter, you’d be Canadian. Relax, they’re just people, no better or worse than any other sort. Get to know this one, and you’ll never think about it again.”
She looked at me like I was handing down the wisdom of the ages, which was definitely a new experience for me. This day was turning out to be full of them.
By the time we returned with drinks for four, Kit had her shit together enough to hand Jem her coffee with a smile and a minimum of awkwardness. Good girl; I decided to keep her.
I didn’t know what they’d been up to without us, but while Sally and Jem were chatting politely like casual acquaintances, their body language screamed Very Close Friends. Had I guessed wrong about the reason Sally wasn’t interested in all the men sniffing after her? Was her weird secret sex toy a bicycle built for two?
I considered the logistics of cookies-and-cream adult sleepovers, and how Sally might try to explain it away to her sweet innocent ward, and the ironic hilarity sent hot cocoa up my nose. Napkins and hankies were quickly deployed to clean me up, adding further to my new-experience collection. I’d never been fussed over before. Fought over, of course, usually arranged by me, but this was… different. I kind of liked it.
Still, note to self: do not mix chocolate and sex. No, wait, do mix them, just don’t do one while imagining someone doing the other. Pretty sure that one’s commutative.
The mall was… actually kind of awesome. I’d forgotten that Fifties shopping centers could be bright, colorful destinations, not just dreary rows of nearly-identical shops. I think we were a little early for the sort that were fully enclosed, but it was a nice day, and the light breeze carried off the worst of the cigarette smoke. The place was pretty upscale, with covered walkways, landscaping and fountains, and plenty of kids off the leash inventing their own fun. All clean-cut and wholesome, but I suspected the teens had some quiet spots for stolen kisses and quick hand-jobs. If they didn’t, I’d be happy to point out a few.
Kit knew the place inside-out and pulled me along by the hand, which pulled Sally along by my hand. I found myself laughing with them, which was a new experience for me. We were quickly loaded down with brightly-colored shopping bags and excess calories; I feared Sally’s cooking had ruined my tastes forever.
Interdimensional sophisticate that I was, I hadn’t noticed that our happy laughing mall crowd was exclusively white until Kit practically ran over a well-turned-out black woman as she rounded a corner.
Or was it “colored”, still? Honestly, it wasn’t something I’d kept much track of; there were plenty of worlds where pale redheads were hated and feared, after all, which was not my fault, but I was spared further introspection by Kit’s sudden retreat behind me.
Apparently dealing with the unknown was my job. “I’m sorry, miss, we weren’t looking where we were going. Are you all right?”
“Oh, just fine, thank you, dear. I’m sure I was at least as much at fault.” She was young, with a strikingly pretty face, a warm smile, and well-polished manners that pretended Kit’s discomfort didn’t exist. She was also, it turned out, an acquaintance of Dear Aunt Sally’s.
Gevalia has updated the branding of the core ingredient in my daily liquid pie. Hopefully this means Amazon and others will start stocking it at non-scalper prices again soon. Fortunately I have time to find out, after a recent stop at Target increased my stash to 102 days worth.
I’ve also been tinkering with using the Barista Recipe Maker froth-as-a-service device to replicate the Gevalia froth packets, and tentatively, 17 grams of dry whole milk plus 4 grams of dutch-process cocoa provides a decent approximation, and mixed with half the coffee can be whipped into a nice hot lather using the FAAS’ “latte macchiato” or “hot chocolate” settings.
Speaking of chocolate flavor, I have to say that this 0-calorie syrup is surprisingly good, and mixes well in the FAAS.
Katherine Elizabeth Margaret Pope, aka “Kit”, she of the ten zillion potential nicknames who’d ended up letting a stranger pick one by accident, was completely unlike anyone in my centuries of experience. Mostly because she wasn’t a Power to be obeyed, a man to be inspired, a rival to be crushed, a pest to be disposed of, a fellow Muse to be tormented, or Aunt Sally, to be figured out real soon now. I was starting to suspect that my understanding of mortals might be just a tad limited by my former lifestyle.
I made it through my first day of school by keeping my eyes on her and my big mouth shut. Which turned out to be a really good idea when one of the fifth-grade rebels said A Naughty Word during recess, and I discovered that getting your mouth washed out with soap was not just an expression. Fuck, that looked nasty. Um, gosh? Golly? Jeepers?
I added “acceptable language” to my long list of future discussion topics with Kit. I’d initially planned to interrogate her over lunch, until I discovered that Sally’s cooking was as good cold as it was hot. I didn’t share. That probably made me a terrible friend.
Sally was waiting for me after school, and she’d brought the car. Oh, right, shopping. Her already-bright smile brightened further when she saw that I wasn’t alone. Kit and I were holding hands; she seemed to like it, and it helped me keep track of her. First law of the jungle: stay with your native guide at all times.
“Oh, you’ve already made a friend! And who is this lovely young lady?” That would have sounded totally phony and condescending if I’d said it, but Aunt Sally was a different breed of cat, and Kit cheerfully introduced herself. This led naturally to an invitation to join our expedition, which suited me just fine; Kit was sure to know her way around children’s stores.
The two women in my life got along like a house on fire. Unfortunately, this meant mutual giggling over the tale of me setting the house on fire, or at least myself and part of the kitchen. I needed them both breathing, though, so I took it gracefully. I just thought about demonstrating the less-recreational uses of cotton rope and hot wax.
Our mutual torture session ended as we arrived at the mall, and we went forth into the land of wash-and-wear and off-the-rack.
Sally walked me to school, which turned out to be of the private just-for-girls variety, a brisk twenty-minute walk from the house. Naturally, she insisted we hold hands. By daylight, the neighborhood matched the house: late Fifties, solidly middle class. I was briefly surprised by the number and variety of men we ran into along the way, politely greeting Miss Sanders and her young ward, until I noticed one of them scrambling into his car and racing off to work as soon as Sally’s legs were out of sight.
Clearly this wasn’t the first time she’d gone for a morning stroll along this route. Perhaps I should assume the role of her duenna and begin evaluating suitors for suitability; I certainly had the age and experience for the job, as well as a vested interest in the outcome.
None of them seemed to attract her interest, which I thought boded well for her standards, and, distracted by my own evaluations, I was surprised when we soon reached the school’s surprisingly sturdy gates. The resemblance to a prison was hopefully only in my head.
I didn’t need to fake a cheery farewell, because I was honestly relieved that Sally’s mystery job hadn’t turned out to be at my school. More on that later, when I had some time alone with my new memories. I headed into the courtyard and started checking out my fellow inmates.
Priority one was Finding A Friend. The older girls were out, although I appreciated the way they’d subtly modified their uniforms to be less depressingly uniform. Apparently rebellion wasn’t taught until the fifth grade, though, unless I could take it as an elective. Unfortunately, this meant that my fellow first-graders were a pretty dull bunch, and I was having trouble spotting any that showed any potential.
“Your mom’s really pretty and sweet.”
“Huh? Yeah, Aunt Sally’s a peach. Excuse me.” Damn, I could barely tell them apart. What did women actually look for when making friends?
“My name’s Katherine, but I don’t like it and I wish I had a good nickname. What’s yours?”
So much for being able to focus. “Count your blessings, kid; you could do a lot worse than Katherine, trust me.”
“Kit? That’s a great nickname! Oh, we’re going to be such good friends!”
Seriously, Powers? Could you be a little less subtle, here? I turned to look at My New Friend, and realized that I’d have to (shudder) say my name out loud for the first time. “I’m Virginia. I guess it’s nice to meet you, Kit.”
I did not kill her for having the red hair and freckles I’d been cruelly denied in my reincarnation. At least the face bore no resemblance to my old one; I guess even the Old Man knew not to push me too far on my first day.
Everything I knew about life as a first-grader could be summed up with the words “first” and “grade”. I’d been near schools before, sure, turning boys into men with a wiggle and a smile while staking out a target, usually one of the teachers, but I don’t think I’d ever been inside a classroom full of kids too young to be interested in playing hide-the-sausage, and definitely not as one of those kids.
What did they do in there all day? And how? I was pretty sure things were still pretty structured in this era, with a strict hierarchy that I was going to be at the bottom of, but what about between kids in the same class? I didn’t have a clue, and my Power-provided memories didn’t supply one. I was going into the jungle, and I needed a native guide.
Shit. I needed a friend. I needed to make friends with a little girl, right away. Damn, this life was going to be elephants all the way down.