Jul 17

Alternate Susan — Chapter Three


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Chapter Three 


Maggie’s car still wasn’t parked by her trailer. Most likely, it meant that she wasn’t home. Or maybe it had broken down and she’d hitchhiked back? Hope springs eternal, so I let myself into her trailer again. No Maggie. It was starting to smell like a shallow grave, and my unhappy nose led me to the garbage can. Fried chicken leftovers don’t keep well at ninety plus degrees. I cracked the window, threw perishables from the fridge into the garbage can, and went outside.


This wasn’t the first time she’d gone on a walkabout, though she usually let us know she’d gone. Most of the time she’d call me from a pay phone on the road, or in Vegas, or wherever, so that I could take care of her stuff till she came back. One time she’d left her dog, a non-housebroken stray that she’d picked up. I’d paid for kenneling for a week, then taken it to the pound. Maggie never asked about the dog; it was like she’d forgotten all about it. She’d always been like that.


After dumping the stinky bag outside the door, I locked the trailer up and replaced the key. I’d have to send a check to the bank. Maggie never thought of things like “pay the mortgage in advance if you’re going to leave for a while.” She’d had the place forever, and the mortgage payments were cheap enough that I could cover them for a month or two until she returned. And if something happened to her, if she didn’t come back … No, don’t think about that. She’d come back.


A muscular young man in a gold colored shirt and warm brown pants climbed the stairs. His face was golden too, bronzed like he’d been outdoors all spring. His dark hair was sunbleached, and tousled so artfully that he must have spent time and money on his careless appearance. Despite his chiseled good looks and trim waist, I didn’t find him attractive. Why not? Unless my Gay-dar was totally broken, he sure looked like a dateable man. “Susan Elizabeth Stillwater,” he said.


“Nice to see you again,” I extended my hand to shake. Maybe he’d tell me his name?


“How are you doing these days?” He had a picture-perfect smile, and it left me cold. Susie hadn’t dated this guy, that was for sure. Handsome, friendly, cold as a fish. No chemistry whatsoever.


“I’m fine, how are you?”


He grinned. He had straight, very white teeth. “I wondered if there’s anything you needed? Anything you wanted?”


It sounded like a come-on, but I took it as a straight line. “Do you know where my mom is?”


“I’ve been looking for her, but she’s not easy to find.” He frowned slightly, as if Maggie had gone just to cause him an inconvenience. “Do you wish for me to find her?”


“No, don’t trouble yourself. If you don’t know where she is either, I’ll find her on my own.”


The man’s face flashed pure rage, just for a split second, then it was gone. By the time the startled burst of adrenaline reached my heart, he was smiling again. He shrugged, waved goodbye, and walked away. No car. That was odd. Where did Maggie know that guy from? Where did Susie know that guy from? Mental note, ask Miles or Zoë who the tanned guy was.


Traffic was backed up on the way home, and I picked up my cell phone to call Jess. I even dialed it and let it ring a few times before remembering she wouldn’t be there. I used to call Jess every day on the way home from work. Jess wasn’t what you’d call reliable, which is why she quit or got fired from almost every job she landed, but she always took my calls or called me right back if she missed one. Jess always seemed to have a joke or a story, and she let me know how Chris was doing, since he was so quiet he’d never tell me himself.


As a child, Chris had been nearly invisible. As an adult, he tended to get ignored by men and women alike. Only his guitar skills got him noticed enough to land a girlfriend. You had to struggle to hold the memory of him in your mind. Even now, I didn’t think of him as a voice or a face, but as a presence, a warm and friendly person who would always be there.


Jess was different. She was the fuchsia-haired, tattooed and pierced wild child. Except for meth and heroin, she’d gotten into just about every sort of trouble a young woman could get into. I’d taken her to get her first abortion at 16, then gave her a lecture and gotten her a prescription for birth control pills. Either the lecture or the pills worked because I didn’t hear about any more abortions.


Jess had moved in with her boyfriend when she was seventeen. Then when her boyfriend’s roommate got drunk and raped her, she moved back in with Maggie. Some girls get wild when something like that happens, but Jess went the other way. She cut back on her drinking, switched from tobacco to cloves, and started eating better (you got pretty thin on a diet of vodka and menthols). She even started going to church, though only for the free choir lessons. Soon after that, she made Chris join her in starting a band. (Chris was too shy to do that on his own.) I helped them find an apartment and another roommate and Jess moved out of Maggie’s trailer. She started drinking again, but except for that, she’d been doing pretty good.


Something dripped off my chin, and it wasn’t until I wiped my face that I realized I’d been crying. Jess and Christopher may have been gone, but they still loomed huge in my life. I’d spent so much time looking after them that once or twice I worried about what they’d do if I died. Never did it occur to me that I’d be the one to feel adrift and alone without them.


When I finally got home, the walls in Zoë’s bedroom had been given a textured coat of gold glaze, and several boxes of new flooring lay in the corner by Zoë’s bathroom. The rest of the room had been emptied out for days, while Zoë meticulously patched holes in plaster and primed the walls. When we moved in, the walls were all semi-gloss ‘Navajo white’ and the floors were all covered in beige carpet. Zoë had been renovating as fast as her paychecks would allow.


“What do you normally do on Friday nights?” Zoë asked. She didn’t look up at me as she slid a board out of its box. Faint lines of what looked like butterscotch pudding had been spread on the floor, next to a line of new flooring. The glue, or mastic, or whatever it was, smelled funny.


“Usually I go climbing at the rock gym. I can’t find any climbing gear, and by these flabby arms, I’m guessing she doesn’t do rowing on Saturday mornings either.” I opened a Diet Coke. It was probably my sixth one since lunch, and the caffeine wasn’t doing me any good, but it was too early to start drinking alcohol.


Zoë slid the tongue of the board into the groove of the one already laid, then carefully slid it into place. The boards looked nice, thick wood and pre-polished. She must have spent a bundle on them. Me, I would have been fine with carpet, but Zoë had different priorities.


“What did Susie usually do on Friday nights?” I asked.


“She used to do a reinforcement ritual, but lately she’d been going out drinking.”


“She was a drinker then? That explains the belly pooch.” I squeezed my midsection. Bet Susie, back in my reality, was happy to find my trimmer body. “Tell me about the reinforcement ritual. What was it for?”


“For reinforcing the spells she’d already laid. Susie said that Christopher and Jess never had to, but her own spells weren’t as secure.” Zoë spread adhesive on the floor, scraping it in careful arcs. She squatted on the cement, seemingly comfortable despite the thick heels on her boots. The row of rings in her back peeked through her thin tee shirt. She’d left the black ribbon in this time, and the outline of it made a series of Xs down her back. Those piercings always grossed me out. “She considered them more talented.”


“Oh, yeah. I used to get jealous that they were so much more musically talented than me. I mean, I played the trumpet, but I wasn’t much good at it. Eventually I just said screw it, and started doing other things. Like climbing. No one else in my family does sports, so it wasn’t like I was competing with everyone.”


“Is your dad still married to Maggie back in your reality?”


“No. Maggie and Dad are separated, never even call each other. Dad talks to Julia, but now that Julia’s off at college she acts like she’s too good for us. He’s not still married to her here, is he? Maggie’s trailer looked the same, and Miles didn’t mention him.”


“No. Am I the same?”


“Your constancy is a great comfort to me.”


The phone rang, and I answered it since Zoë’s hands were sticky with adhesive.


“Hello, Susie? I’m so glad you’re home. I thought you might be out drinking again.”


Who was this? She had a smooth, sardonic voice, almost like Ellen Degeneres. Dare I ask who she was? “No, I went out last night, and it kind of turned me off.”


“You’ll never guess who I got a call from today. The MIB.”


“The Men in Black?”


She laughed, and I had an image of a curtain of golden hair being tossed over a shoulder. Amber colored hair. Was this Amber? Amber worked in accounts payable, and we sometimes went out for salad when we happened to be on the same diet, but we weren’t even a ‘pick me up from the airport’ kind of friend. Why was she calling me? I barely knew her.


“Men in black, that’s funny, I’ll have to remember that. No, the Magical Investigation Bureau. They wanted to know about what we did the other night.” Amber became quieter and serious. “You haven’t told anyone about that, have you?”


“No, but I… Amber, can we talk?”


“We’re talking now.”


“I mean like face to face. There’s something I need to tell you.” And I needed to find out if she was really my friend. “Let’s um, meet for coffee? How about at the Starbucks near my house?”


“Which one, the one on the northeast corner, or the one on the southwest corner?”


“Northeast corner.”


“Oh, wait, there’s two on the Northeast corner. You mean the Starbucks inside the grocery store?”


I sighed. In my universe, there were only two Starbucks on that intersection. “Forget it. Meet me at my house.”


“Okay, I’ll be there in half an hour.”


I walked back into the room where Zoë was redoing the floor. She said, “I’d be very careful of anyone calling herself Susie’s friend these days. She said someone planned to screw her over.”


“You think it’s Amber?” And here Miles was sure it was Derek who meant to screw me over. I drank the last of the Diet Coke and tossed it in the garbage can, ignoring Zoë’s glare. Zoë would probably pick it out and throw it in the recycle bin later.


“Might be. Or it might be Miles.”




“He’s up to something.” Zoë scraped more wood adhesive along the floor, and slid in another board. The adhesive smelled vile, but I didn’t say anything. The house is Zoë’s, actually. Her dad bought it for her as an investment and as a place for Zoë to live while she was getting her art degree from Arizona State.  Now that she was managing to pay the bills as a tattoo artist, she was mortgaging it from him. Zoë and I had an agreement about her renovation obsession. I never complained about her taste or the inconvenience, and she never asked me to help.


“I came home and found him reading a phone book. He had a scrap of colored pencil lead, and was underlining numbers. What are his motives? Do you think he might have had something to do with your mom’s disappearance?”


“He said they were friends.” True, Maggie didn’t know him in my reality, but then again, back in Tempe, no one had a talking lizard friend. “Where is he, have you seen him?”


Zoë didn’t answer, because she had gone outside to cut a board to length. The whine of the miter saw came through the closed French door, and the stage spotlight on the roof (she once had a sticky-fingered boyfriend who worked in a theater) illuminated a plume of sawdust. She walked inside, blowing reddish dust off the cut edge of the board.


“Did you say something?”


“I asked if you knew where Miles was.”


“You shouldn’t hang out with him. He’s up to something.”


“Oh, come on, Zoë. He’s a cute little lizard, he’s like Maggie’s sidekick or something. You think he’s got his own agenda?”


Zoë didn’t answer, sliding the board into its groove instead. I wasn’t sure what I wanted her to say. Miles was my only chance of getting Maggie back, and Maggie was probably my only chance of going back to my own reality, unless I really did want to summon this demon that Zoë kept alluding to. Once I was back in my own reality, I’d be free to go to work, hang out with my friends, maybe ask out Will, that cute guy from the beginning rowing class (though supposedly women still aren’t supposed to ask men out) and live my own life.


There was a knock at the door. I walked down the hall to the kitchen, and through the window panes I saw a long curtain of amber colored hair shining in the porch light. So, Amber had been here often enough that she could find my house without directions in less than ten minutes. She was the same girl who I knew from my reality. Same perfect teeth, same tight clothes, same hot-pink phone cover. When I opened the door, she gave me a hug as greeting. I saw a glint at her ears, and lifted her hair to reveal gold spirals on her lobes.


“Those are my earrings.”


“Yeah, do you want them back already?” Amber didn’t sound ashamed. I must have lent them to her.


“No. They look good on you, that’s all.” I tried to make my face neutral, but Amber must have seen my puzzlement.


“Susie, what’s going on?” Amber pulled out a chair and sat down.  She put her clutch purse on the table. I’d gotten that purse from an aunt with unusually bad taste. It had lain unused in the tissue paper, somewhere at the back of my closet, waiting against the day when pink beaded roses came back into style. Susie must have given it to Amber years ago, and by the looks of it, Amber had cherished the gift. Susie and Amber were friends, good friends, like, ‘help yourself to my closet’ kind of friends.


But I barely knew her, so I lied.


“I’ve been having memory problems. I can’t remember anything that happened the past week or two.”


“You can’t be serious.” Amber laughed, a splutter of disbelief, but then she looked at my face and her smile evaporated.


“Maggie’s gone. I don’t know where she went, or if she told me.” I looked at the clutch purse, and the earrings. “I need to find her. I need her help with something. Miles has been trying to help me, but Zoë says I shouldn’t trust him.”


“Does he really talk to you?”


“Miles? Yeah. He really talks to me.”


“It’s not just a hallucination?” Amber’s knee bounced up and down. I wasn’t sure if it was her common habit, or if she were nervous.


“You know he talks.” Didn’t she?


“Yes, Maggie said she could hear him, but I never heard him talk.”


“He really is a talking lizard. He said that Maggie was the reason he’s able to talk, and that because I could hear him, it meant that Maggie had passed on the spell to me. I think he hasn’t been telling me the whole truth about what’s going on, but what if he’s right? What if Maggie’s in trouble and I’m the only one who can save her?”


And what if Susie was good at magic? What if this was where my talent lay? I could be more than just Susan, sister and daughter of really good musicians. I could be Susan, talented mage.


“Passed on Miles’ spell to you. Sounds like she didn’t think she’d come back.” Amber tattooed a drumbeat on the table with her manicured nails. “You sure you don’t remember anything from the last week?”


“That’s what I need your help with. I need to know what happened if I’m going to find out where Maggie is.”


I gathered my purse, and a pencil, and brought it to the table. My purse was a huge thing, large enough to carry a dog in—like a beagle—and it said something about my own magpie habits that Susie’s miscellaneous spell-ingredients didn’t differ much from what I normally carried around: colored stones, striped feathers, bottles of ink and spirals of paper torn from napkins. I had a Zippo lighter, though I didn’t smoke, and a pen knife, though I’d never used it for much of anything. I also had a large black datebook that doubled as an emergency cash supply, coupon sorter, and journal. “I know she left on Tuesday, and I have all my memories intact from yesterday onward.”


“How do you know she left on Tuesday? We talked to her Monday night, and she didn’t sound like she was planning to leave.”


“Zoë said so.” I got another Diet Coke from the fridge. I’d bought a whole case earlier that week, and it was almost gone. Well, it was better than alcohol, at least. “You want a soda?”


Amber took the can from me. “What does Miles think happened to her?”


“He spun some story about people coming to get her, but she took her records, and she shut off the AC, so that means that she meant to go and that she meant to go for a long time.”


“It’s not like her to make you worry like this. She would have told you if she were going to leave.”


“Maybe she did,” I mused. “Like I said, my memories of the past week are patchy. I don’t remember what it is that you don’t want me to tell the MIB about.”


“If you don’t remember, they won’t be able to make you tell anything. That’s pretty clever.” Amber’s shoulders dropped, and I realized she’d been hunching them. “I’ll tell you what my second wish was for. I wished for a decent boyfriend. I can’t believe I was dumb enough to make my first wish for Jason. He didn’t even say thanks.”


I smiled, dearly wanting to know what she was talking about. I couldn’t ask her though, not and betray the fact that I’d lied. “Well, keep my memory loss quiet from everyone else, will you?”


“You must have made a second wish though, right?”


“I don’t know. I can’t remember.” I grabbed Susie’s love handle. “I don’t think it was to lose weight.”


Amber laughed. “Oh shut up. You look fine.”


“Do you have any idea where Maggie might have gone?”


“Knowing her, she’s probably on a beach in Mexico, smoking and drinking away a chest of pirate gold. Have you scried for her?”


“Not yet.”


“That’s what I’d do.”


“Okay,” I agreed, baffled.  Maybe Miles could help me with that. Once I found Maggie, assuming she was unharmed, I’d make her get Susie and me to switch back.


Amber tossed her half-full soda into the garbage can, and made a show of checking her watch. “I’ve gotta go. Give me a call next weekend though, we can hang out.”


I walked Amber to her car and came back in to find Zoë fishing the can out of the garbage. She rinsed it out and tossed it in the recycling bin with a raised eyebrow. “She does that every time. Why does she even bother opening one if she’s not going to finish it?”


“Do you like any of Susie’s friends?”


“Not yet,” Zoë replied. “But I haven’t met them all.”


I glanced at the white pages on the table and followed her back to her bedroom.  “I don’t know Amber very well, but I like the idea that Susie’s friends are here to help me out. It’s weird that she’s a mage too. Seems like everyone Susie knows is into magic.”


“Not that weird. You make friends with people who share interests. All your friends are into magic, except me. All my friends are tattooed and pierced. You’re my only friend without any tattoos.”


“Miles said it’s not ladylike to have tattoos,” I said. Zoë had never pushed it, but she made sure I knew that she’d cut me a deal if I ever decided to get ink done. So far I never had, because I couldn’t imagine what I’d get done. “Makes me almost want to change my mind, just to piss him off.”


Zoë walked back into her bedroom, back to me as she spread more glue on the floor. “You shouldn’t trust Miles. He’s probably been eavesdropping.”


I looked back down the hall at the kitchen. Some of the furniture from Zoë’s bedroom had ended up in the dining area, and it was full of cat-proof hiding places. Miles could be in here, listening in. It wasn’t like we could keep a lizard out. They got in all the time. Lizards were the unofficial logo of Phoenix, of the whole valley, really. You saw them on postcards, on tee-shirts, and the tourist shops sold clay ones that you could tack to the side of your house. Lizards ran along block walls all day, tan streaks capable of surviving blistering hot summers with little water. Spaz had never found a mouse, and rarely caught anything with wings, but she’d successfully hunted hundreds of lizards in the four years since we got her. Could she keep Miles at bay? Did I want her to?


I walked back into the kitchen and looked at the phone book. Miles had bent the corner of one of the whitepages, and faintly scrawled an orange line next to one of the entries. I tore out the page and stuffed it in my purse.


I leafed through the datebook again. Nearly every page of the datebook had notes scribbled in tiny black print. I had written in it several times at work, writing down a doctor’s appointment, and inking in the show times for a movie that Jess said she wanted to see with me. It hurt all over, realizing that I’d written that down without remembering that my brother and sister were dead. When I found out how to switch back to my own reality, I’d never take Christopher and Jess for granted again. How did Susie stand it? I’d never been without my family. Never. I was always the one that everyone relied upon, and now that they were gone, I felt like mortar without any bricks.


Okay, focus, Susan. First you have to find out why Maggie left.


Monday’s date had only a brief note that said, “Meet J and A”.


The sudden whine of a power tool made me jerk upright. My fingertips tingled, and I felt energy surge up my legs. It was only Zoë, making some cuts with her cordless circular saw. I let the magic flow back into the earth. God knows what I’d been about to do. Memo to self: find Susie’s spellbook and start studying it. I sat down again at the table, flipping through the datebook. Some of the entries were of the sort I might make: pick up drycleaning, or get car registered. Others didn’t make much sense.


December 3rd. Haley Walker lost refund check. Send picture of small octagonal trash can.


January 12th. Youngstown. Cousin trouble? Curse, miss plane?


January 31st Dog arthritis again. Jackson. Yellow coat.


“Dog arthritis,” I murmured aloud, feeling a wave of déjà vu. Someone’s dog had gotten sick, and I had cured him from a distance. I was doing it as a favor for a friend, but not the dog’s owner. I frowned, rubbing my temple as the memory faded. It was like waking up after an interesting dream. What was so clear while my head was on the pillow drifted away too quickly, and by the time I finished brushing my teeth I couldn’t remember any of it.


But maybe Zoë remembered? I took the book back to her room. Zoë was crouched over, tapping a wooden block against the edges of the planks.


“Don’t step on the floor,” she warned. “The glue isn’t set yet.”


“Zoë, I wanted to ask you about—what’s this?” As I shifted the datebook, trying to show her the page, a folded piece of paper slipped out of one of the back folders. It looked official, and several loose photographs fluttered to the floor. I picked one up. It was me, naked from the waist up and looking over my shoulder, standing in the kitchen back when it had those yellow cabinets. My back was striped in red, as though some giant cat had clawed me. The paper appeared to be a statement, dated and notarized but not addressed to anyone, attesting to an attack that occurred on 3:10 pm, Saturday the 14th.


Zoë picked a loose photo off the ground, glanced at it, and handed it to me. “You said that’s why you moved out of your old apartment. Some guy attacked you.”


“Bo, who wouldn’t leave me alone,” I said. “He never whipped me though.”


“Susie said she knew who did this, but she didn’t press charges.” Zoë gave the plank another few whacks, pushing the grooves closer together. An iridescent moth fluttered around Zoë’s head, then landed on her forearm. “Said she’d rather forget about it, so I never asked.”


I felt along my back, not sure if the lines were still there or if it was only my imagination. I needed to find someone who knew me better than I knew myself. Maggie. I needed my mom.


“I’m going out.” I stuffed the photos and papers back into my datebook. “I can’t handle this right now.” There was another letter in there, addressed to me. I slipped it out only long enough to recognize it as something bureaucratic, and decided to deal with it later.


“Call me if you get too drunk to drive.”


“Does that happen a lot?”


“Only since Jess and Christopher died.” Zoë looked at me over her shoulder. She didn’t seem to notice the moth, though it was as big as a silver dollar and crawling towards her wrist. “You gonna be okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine,” I called back, already on my way to the door with my monster purse slung over my shoulder

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Not sure yet? Come back next week for Chapter Four.

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