Here’s the first chapter of my new book, Alternate Susan, now out almost everywhere.
I realized I was in an alternate reality when I came home Thursday night and tried to order pizza.
My usual Thursday routine was to go to the Roadhouse with my mom, Maggie, to see Smiling Politely, the band my sister and brother play in. Go to work, come home, hang out with Jess and Christopher. Thursday was also my day to cook. That meant takeout.
I changed into my favorite denim skirt, but it felt strangely tight so I put on jeans and an ivory blouse that Zoë always said was cut too low for busty girls like me. Then I took the yellow pages off the shelf and flipped to restaurants.
“Nello’s okay?” I asked my roommate Zoë. “Or would you rather have Chinese?”
Zoë and I shared a three-bedroom house with desert landscaping and the universal college-house couch on the porch. It was not too far from the trailer park where I’d been living with Maggie and my siblings before they drove me nuts and I moved out.
“You know Susie, I really prefer Mexican,” Zoë said. She’d never called me ‘Susie’ before, but somehow that didn’t tip me off.
“Mexican places don’t deliver, and if I have to go and get something, I might be late for—hello, that’s weird.” I drew my finger down the listings in the phone book. “‘Hayden’s Ferry Mexican Cantina’ and ‘Tres Hermanos, voted best margaritas in Hayden’s Ferry for 2005.’ Since when is Tempe called Hayden’s Ferry?”
“What are you talking about?” Zoë asked. Her boots clomped across the floor. She must have gotten home from work before I had, because she was wearing cut-off sweat pants and a sport bra instead of the usual leather-and-vinyl sex kitten garb she wore at the tattoo parlor where she poked people with inky needles for a living. Her midriff was bare, showing most of her dragon tattoos and about half her piercings.
Zoë is half a foot shorter than I am, but she’s so skinny that she appears tall, even though she only comes up to about five five in her highest stiletto heeled boots. She has jet black hair with pale roots, giving her an unfortunate resemblance to a skunk. I don’t know why a natural platinum blonde would ever dye her hair black. I’ve been blonde on occasion, but a lack of bonuses at work meant that brown roots now came down to my ears.
I ran my finger down the pizza listings, looking at the city addresses. Phoenix was still Phoenix. Scottsdale was Scottsdale. Chandler and Guadalupe stayed the same. No Mesa listings, but plenty of businesses in a place called ‘Brighamville’.
“If this is a joke, it’s a good one. These yellow pages look just like the real thing.” I turned the book over, looking for something that said it was a fake. “Zoë, where’s the real phone book?”
“This city’s always been called Hayden’s Ferry.”
This was getting annoying. Zoë wasn’t usually a practical joker.
“There you are, Miss Susie! Finally!” said a disembodied voice. It sounded like Maggie, except more masculine, and a lot less cigarette-rasped.
“Who was that?” I looked around the kitchen. Next to the window was our fish, and next to the light switch was the cat food dish for Zoë’s cat, Spaz. No one else. I went to the window and looked out, and saw no one there either. Something fluttered in the tree outside, something that wouldn’t have been there if the world were still normal, but I told myself it was birds. “What was that? Is there a ghost in here? Who’s talking?”
“I didn’t hear anything,” Zoë said. She leaned over my shoulder and drew her black acrylic nail down the yellow pages listings. “And there’s nothing funny about these listings. I vote for Filibertos. I could go for a burrito.”
“I heard something. It sounded like my mom.” I pulled away from her. Had she planted a recording or something? Why was she playing all these tricks?
“Miss Susie, it’s me, Miles. I’m here on the wall.” On the wall of the dining room was a lizard, appearing as though he were clinging to the painted branch on the mural of two maple trees flanking the window.
“Zoë, you’re sure you can’t hear that?”
“No, Margaret passed the spell on to you,” said the voice. “Only you can hear me.” The lizard ran along the branch, and down the white molding to the window sill. He was barely the length of my hand, and a pale beige color. His neck, an iridescent blue, pulsed in and out with what might have been agitation. Then he spoke again. I backed away, the hair on the back of my neck standing up.
“The lizard’s talking …”
“What’s he saying?” asked Zoë. She didn’t sound surprised.
“Miss Susie. Do I sound like Margaret to you?”
“It … it wants to know if it sounds like my mother.”
It did. I addressed the creature directly. “What are you?”
“I am Miles, and you are Miss Susan. Margaret is the one who made me able to talk. That is why I have her voice. She’s capable of great magic, on occasion.” The lizard sounded patient, understanding, and more than a little sarcastic.
“Everyone calls her Maggie. My mom hates being called Margaret.” I didn’t know why I was telling the talking lizard that. “Why are you here?”
“I’m here because she left when she got her wish. She’s gone. Fled. She even left her trailer behind. And here I thought those things were portable,” the lizard said, again deeply sarcastic.
“Wish?” It was like being in a dream, or in some sort of inexplicable play where no one had given me a script.
“What did you wish for, Miss Susie? Gross ignorance?”
“What the heck are you talking about, lizard?” I was beginning to get angry. This joke needed to stop.
“Your wish from the djinn. What did you wish for?”
“What’s with you, Susie? Since when is your mom’s familiar just ‘lizard?’” Zoë asked.
I sat down at the table and stumbled as I nearly missed the chair. “Familiar? What’s going on here? Why do you keep calling me Susie? This isn’t funny anymore. Stop it. Seriously.” I felt ill. This was the kind of crap Chris might pull, thinking it was funny long past when everyone else did, but Zoë wasn’t like that. Zoë was levelheaded, serious.
“Are you on drugs?” Zoë asked. She sounded something between concerned and disapproving. I shook my head numbly.
“Oh, dear, this could be serious. Miss Susan, why don’t you have some whisky?” the lizard suggested.
“Whisky.” I repeated. I had the urge to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. Something was wrong. Something was unnatural. My arms prickled all over with goose pimples. Zoë opened the cabinet over the sink, and a moment later she handed me a shot glass. I knocked it back. The familiar scent of whisky wafted up my nostrils. Why was it familiar? I liked rum.
“Better?” the lizard asked.
No. Talking lizard, alternate reality. Not at all cool. The shot glass had a drop or two in the bottom. “I’ve drunk this before.”
Zoë scoffed as she put the rest of the bottle back in the cupboard. It was nearly empty. “You used to put back a bottle a night after the funerals.”
“Funerals?” I asked. A creeping horror told me I didn’t even need to ask, but the whisky kept me from panicking.
“Your siblings,” Miles the lizard said. “Jess and Christopher. Did you ask the djinn for memory loss?”
“Jess and Christopher have been dead for most of a year now,” Zoë said.
I started crying. Zoë wouldn’t lie to me about something like this. I wanted it to not be true, but as I reached into my mind, I knew it was. The grief felt old. My sister and brother had both died months ago. Sobs shook me back and forth. But it was like I was two people, Susan and Susie. The Susie part of me had already dealt with it. For her, the sorrow had diminished to a muscle-ache level, not a toothache level. The rest of me, the one who had gone to bed in a normal world last night, was still in shock. Zoë moved away respectfully. After a while, I stopped sniffling and wiped my face on a paper napkin.
“I wanna call Maggie.” No matter how independent a woman thinks she is, when the world changes this much, she wants her mom. “Gimme my phone.”
“Don’t bother. She disappeared on Tuesday,” Miles the lizard informed me. He scampered off the wall, up the table, and onto the back of my hand. I didn’t want him touching me, but it didn’t seem polite to just fling him off. “Just after she made her wish. It took me a long time to get here from her house. It’s a brisk walk for a lizard.”
“So, are you a real person,” Zoë asked, “or are you made of clay or something?”
“He feels real to me.”
“No, not Miles. You, Susie. Are you a real person?”
“What?” I gave Zoë a confused look.
“Susie said she’d be gone by the end of the week, but that she’d have a replacement. I guess you’re the replacement. Are you a real person?”
“I’m me. Zoë, we’ve known each other for years. I’m Susan Stillwater. The world I woke up in yesterday didn’t have talking lizards, and the city I lived in wasn’t called Hayden’s Ferry.” And Jess and Chris were fine, and Maggie hadn’t gone missing.
“You must be from an alternate reality,” Miles proposed. “I’ve heard of such things, but never quite believed it. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Susie switched places with you, her counterpart.”
“An alternate reality?” If he was right about me being from an alternate world, then back there, Jess and Chris were still fine, and Maggie was probably over at the Roadhouse now. When had I come over? This morning? During my lunch break? But work was the same, wasn’t it? Except for that new chick, the new loan officer, who had the unusual yellow-irised eyes and a cackling laugh. I’d asked about her, but everyone else said she’d always been there. But shouldn’t there have been some booming sound, some flash of light, some miraculous orgasmic power feeling? And what about the weird not-quite-bird creatures flying around in the trees?
Zoë nodded, as matter-of-factly as if Miles had proposed takeout Chinese for dinner. “That makes sense. Well, I’m glad she wished for a replacement. It’s hard to find roommates at the beginning of summer.”
“Zoë …” I began, struggling for words. I wanted her to disagree with Miles, to tell me that it was all a big joke, that this wasn’t really an alternate reality with dead siblings and a missing mother. But she didn’t.
Zoë wasn’t just a roommate, she was the closest thing I had to a responsible adult in my life. Zoë was the one who knew who to call when the pipes busted. Zoë helped me file my GED papers. Zoë drove me to urgent care when my “just the flu” had turned out to be a raging bronchial infection. And if she was taking this so calmly, what could I do?
Find Maggie. If Maggie was a witch or mage or whatever in this world, she would be able to help me get back to my own reality. I’d have to find her. “Miles, can you help me find my mom?”
Miles coughed. “Of course there is the matter of the—“ and then he broke off, because Spaz had jumped onto the table, taken Miles in her mouth, and run off with him.
“No!” I ran after the cat, but Spaz ran out the pet door. I chased Spaz only long enough to see her eat Miles. Miles screamed for a few brief moments, and then there was only silence, and the disgusting crunch of lizard bones in a cat’s jaw. I wanted to yell at her, hit her, call her a murderess, and for a moment I did, yelling anyway, not hitting. Then I stopped myself. She was only doing what cats naturally do. It still felt like a murder. And Miles didn’t have a chance to tell me all I needed to know.
I locked the cat door in case Spaz puked. Then I plopped into the kitchen chair and buried my head in my hands.
“Well, that’s a shame, but I never liked him anyway. You know what I think you should do?” Zoë said, eyeing me with concern. “I think you should go out, have some drinks, then call your boss and fake a case of the flu tomorrow. What with your mom disappearing and all that’s been happening, you’re probably exhausted.”
“Why are you taking this so well?” I asked her.
She snorted. “I’ve been your friend for how long? You think I haven’t seen something weirder than this? Come to think of it, don’t fake the flu, fake diarrhea. Even the Hag won’t make you work through that.”
“Thank God you haven’t changed.” In this world, she was the closest thing to family I had left. Even Maggie’s familiar (familiar?!) was gone.
“Since when do you thank God instead of your demon? Go, get plastered. Call me if you can’t drive yourself home.”
I looked at the room. Scratched teak table with mismatched chairs. Floor with the linoleum half-scraped, awaiting new tile. Zoë’s serious china doll face, and the red fins of her fish swimming in his bowl. Everything looked exactly the same. How could it be so different?
And then there had been Miles, talking to me, the eggshell in my omelet. But he wasn’t here now, was he?
I looked at the things that hadn’t changed, concentrating on them, the way I replayed my trip to Disneyland to keep me from freaking out when I was getting a cavity filled.
Panic rose up, threatened to make me run around screaming, so I concentrated on the details, pretending nothing was different. Magnet on the fridge with the pizzeria phone number, secondhand mixing bowl and stainless steel coffee maker. Smudged glass window overlooking the dusty carport. My red leather keychain from the normal Tempe, (where Jess and Christopher were just now setting up for their show tonight). All this could keep me sane.
“I’m gonna go to the Roadhouse,” I said. Go to the Roadhouse, just like every other Thursday.
She nodded. “There are worse places to start looking for your mom.”
Not sure yet? Come back next week for chapter two.