It was her. It was Miranda Wallbern, the girl who had been my best friend starting in the second grade and going all the way up to seventh. When she had showed up about a third of the way through the school year, Miranda had been the only black girl in my grade. Wyoming isn’t exactly super-diverse, to put it mildly, and it was the first time many of the elementary students had seen anyone like that.
I personally met Miranda after a third grade girl named Terry had tripped me in the lunch line, making me spill my milk all over my shirt. While others laughed, the new girl who had only been there a week and was constantly being stared at took her own milk and threw it in Terry’s face. That had pissed the older girl off, and she had jumped on Miranda, screaming like a banshee. So I grabbed her leg from where I was on the floor, dragging the older girl down. Everything had degenerated from there until all three of us ended up in the principal’s office, doomed to three weeks of after school detention.
From that moment, at around the age of eight, until she left town at the age of thirteen, Miranda and I had been inseparable. She had helped to fill a void that had been there after my mother had left the year before. Then, when she too had to leave because of her mother’s new job, I had stopped trying to make any close friends, afraid of the feeling that would come every time they had to leave as well.
“Well now, isn’t that interesting?” Somewhere in the background, I heard Hisao speak, his tone curious. “Sounds to me like we might have a little reunion going on after all. You two know each other?”
Miranda spoke first, her eyes never leaving me. “Yes, sir. This is Flick. My umm, my…” She hesitated, trailing off uncertainly before settling on a quiet, “We were friends before I joined the Garden.”
“Is that right?” Hisao glanced to me, but I barely noticed the attention. My mind was too busy reeling, trying to comprehend the odds of not only my mother secretly having been a Heretic, but my best friend becoming one as well. How unbelievably small were the chances that would happen on its own?
Clearing his throat when I didn’t respond right away, Hisao made a courteous gesture toward Professor Dare. “Ah, well, Virginia, it doesn’t seem fair for us to rip these two apart so soon if they were so close. What do you say to a brief consultation? We can compare notes, you could give a bit of information to your Runners when they show up, and these two could use that time to have little conversation.”
The blonde woman at my side started to shake her head before pausing. “We don’t–” She stopped then, glancing down toward me before letting out a quiet sigh. “All right.” To me, she said, “Hisao and I will go for a walk. You should catch up with your friend. I will meet you here in one hour.” She pointed to the bus stop where I had met my father. “You will be waiting here, ready to go. Do you understand?”
Slowly, distractedly, I nodded. My eyes still hadn’t left the dark skinned girl who stood across from me.
The two adults stepped away to confer, leaving us standing there. For a minute, neither of us spoke. Miranda opened her mouth a couple times, but nothing came out. I just stared, unable to make a sound.
In the end, she was the one who broke the silence first. “You’re a… a Heretic.” Her voice was strained.
My head jerked in a weird nod, and I finally forced myself to speak. “So are you,” I lifted a hand to point at her, unable to stop myself. “You’re from Eden’s Garden. You—Miranda, you’re a… you’re…”
She started to look away from me, her gaze dropping a bit while she spoke quietly. “I’m sorry I didn’t-”
That was as far as she managed to get before I dropped my bag and bodily threw myself at her, blurting, “You’re here!”
I had intended to hug her. Unfortunately for me, Miranda had been a Heretic for much longer than I had. Her reaction to me flinging myself in her direction was to quickly and smoothly sidestep before catching my arms. The next thing I knew, I was tossed up and over, the world spinning around once before I came down on my back on the nearby grass, the impact knocking the wind out of me.
I laid there on the cold and dirty ground for a few seconds, gazing blearily at the light blue sky while making a low wheezing noise. All I could focus on just then was trying to catch my breath.
“Oh my god!” Miranda’s face appeared above me as she dropped to her knees in the grass, looking horrified. “I’m sorry, Flick, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Are you all right? Can you breathe?”
With effort, I inhaled sharply, refilling my lungs while groggily lifting a hand into a thumbs up. It took me a few more long seconds of wheezing before I had enough air to actually try speaking. “P-peachy.”
The other girl’s head shook rapidly. “God, I’m sorry about that. Really, I just, I didn’t expect that.”
“Uggnnm, neither did I.” Coughing, I made myself sit up. The pain was already gone thanks to the power I’d absorbed from the peridles, and I found myself smiling wryly in spite of myself. “Good thing you didn’t know how to do that with Terry. That would’ve been like, six weeks of detention, at least.”
Her sudden snicker seemed to surprise Miranda, judging from the way her hand flew up to cover her mouth. I saw her eyes widen a bit before she slowly lowered it. Her voice was quiet. “Worth it.”
“So umm, you’re a Heretic,” I managed while shifting myself into a seated position there on the grass.
“I think we’ve been through that part already,” the girl reminded me as a tiny smirk pulled at her face.
Blinking once, I tilted my head. “We have? Oh, right. That was just before I went wheee ker-thump.” My hand gestured through the air in demonstration before slapping hard against the grass.
Miranda winced, head shaking. “Like I said, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. I uhh, it was instinct.”
“It’s okay,” I promised her before letting out a long breath. “I probably had it coming. Throwing myself at you like that after finding out you’ve been training to be a bad ass monster hunter was pretty dumb.”
“Impulsive,” she corrected gently. “Not dumb, just impulsive. And kind of understandable.” Shrugging a little awkwardly, the other girl added, “I mean, I almost did the same thing. You were just first.”
“You probably should’ve,” I informed my old friend with a sage nod. “Then we’d be hugging instead of sitting here on the grass doing, uhh, whatever you call this.” Gesturing around us absently, I shrugged.
“You’re not mad at me?” Miranda’s voice was clearly hesitant and uncertain. She looked at me, biting her lip. “I thought you’d be upset that I didn’t really keep in contact, that I umm, disappeared.”
Looking at the grass, I took in a long breath before letting it out again. “Maybe I was for awhile. Maybe I’ve been upset before, when I think about you leaving. But I don’t care about that right now, Randi. I don’t care about being mad, or what happened. You’re my… I mean, you were my… I mean… fuck it, you were my best friend for years. Who cares about being mad or petty? You’re here. Now I’m gonna hug you for real this time. You can either accept it, or throw me on the ground again.”
That little smile returned, and Miranda shook her head. “Thanks, I think I can control myself this time.”
With that, I shifted closer and promptly put both arms around the other girl, embracing her as tight as I could. “You’re really here,” I managed to speak in a low voice that cracked only a little. “You’re here.”
After a second, Miranda returned the hug. Her arms closed around me and I felt her grip tighten almost painfully. She was clearly a lot stronger than she looked. “Flick,” she spoke hesitantly while hugging me. “I can’t believe it. I thought I might see you when we came, that I might have a chance to say, to say… something. But I never thought you’d be a Heretic. I never thought you’d know any of this!”
In spite of myself, I had to smile while continuing to embrace her. “It is kind of crazy, huh?”
“Super crazy,” she replied before leaning back to look at me. “Flick, my god. How long have you…”
“Been a Heretic?” I finished with a shrug. “Just a couple months, actually. Since the school year started.”
Her head bobbed up and down then. “Right, right, I remember. Crossroads starts way later than we do.”
Belatedly realizing what that meant, my eyes widened a little bit. “Wait, you left here when you were thirteen. Was that when you, umm, became a Heretic? Was that why you really moved?”
She shifted a little, leaning back to nod slightly. “I didn’t know at the time, but sort of. The Garden people were the ones that made sure Mom got that new job in New Hampshire. It was to, umm, you know, avoid a bunch of questions from people we knew about why I just disappeared. Easier to have a kid not be around very much when you just moved into a brand new area like that, where nobody knows your family. They do it a lot, since people tend to pay more attention to younger kids disappearing for most of the year than the older teens that Crossroads takes in. So they moved us out there and recruited me before we even got there. Mom and Dad think that I’ve been at military school for years now, and that I’m being recruited straight into the army after graduation.”
My head was shaking slowly while I struggled to deal with all this. Finally, I bit my lip and gestured with a hand. “Do you want to, um, take a walk? We could get a soda or something at Billy’s on Third.”
“Billy’s?” Miranda echoed blankly, head tilting. “I thought Dale’s was on Third, by the laundromat?”
“Yeah, that’s Billy’s now,” I informed her with a shrug. “Dale moved to Oregon. Billy’s his nephew. You know, that guy a few years older than us that used to sell Playboys behind the school to the kids whose parents actually had decent locks on the internet? Now he sells them straight off the rack.”
Sighing, Miranda stood up while offering a hand to me. “Should’ve kept the name Dale’s. It’s better.”
I accepted her hand and straightened to my feet, an easy smile coming then. “I know, right? He just had to change it to prove it was his.” Making a face then, I added, “He redecorated too. Took away the benches that were outside and the arcade machines, because they–” I raised my hands to make air quotes. “encourage people to sit around and gossip instead of spending their money and moving on.
“He took out the machines?!” Miranda sounded appalled. “Not Mortal Kombat. Tell me he left my baby alone, at least.” When I shook my head, she made a strangled sound. “Gah, are you sure he’s not a Stranger, Flick? Cuz he sounds like an unrepentant monster to me. Some kind of fun-hating bastard.”
“Right now I’m not sure about anything,” I replied while shrugging once more. “If you’re a Heretic, and my–” I stopped talking abruptly then, falling silent while realizing what I had been about to say.
Looking at me quizzically then, the other girl asked, “And your what? What’s going on, Flick?”
I remained silent for a moment, biting my lip hard while looking at Miranda. Part of me felt like I should keep quiet, like sharing what I knew with someone who was still part of Eden’s Garden was a bad idea. After all, Trice and his friends who had tried to kill Avalon were from there.
But so what? I was pretty sure Doxer was left handed. Did that mean I was going to be suspicious of left handed people from now on? Just being from another school didn’t mean anything. Avalon proved that by herself. Plus there was Seller. He knew pretty much everything already. More than I did, actually, considering the spell that prevented him from actually explaining anything about my mother.
Most of all, however, more importantly than any of that, Miranda was my friend. She’d been there for me for years after my mother disappeared. She helped me through some of the worst times, sitting with me and helping me move on with my life. She wasn’t just a friend or someone I used to know, she had been my best friend. I could tell her anything and everything. If I couldn’t trust her with my secrets, then I might as well curl up and die on the ground right then, because nobody was trustworthy.
“My mom,” I finally spoke out loud after several long seconds. “She… she was a Heretic too.”
Performing a sharp double-take, Miranda’s eyes went wide. “Wh—huh? But she… what do you mean?”
Biting my lip, I gestured once more while bending down to grab my heavy bag, hauling it back up onto my shoulders. “Come on, Randi. Let’s go get a drink. I’ll tell you all about it. But I’m pretty sure that you’re going to be even more pissed off that Billy took out those benches after I do.
“Because this is a story you’ll probably want to sit down for.”
In the end, after getting a couple sodas from the convenience store, the two of us walked over to a small park that was down the street, and sat down at one of the picnic tables there. I worked my way through the whole story, explaining everything that had happened since the moment I woke up on that empty bus. I told her about all of it, leaving absolutely nothing out. Once I started talking, it all came in a rush.
By the time I was done, Miranda was staring at me in open shock. “Oh my god. Oh my god, Flick. Your mom. Your mom is still out there. She’s—it wasn’t her fault. You were– you mean all this time, she’s been–” Cutting herself off, I saw the surprise fade sharply into horrible guilt. “Oh…”
Flinching, I nodded. “Yeah, oh. She did it for me. She surrendered herself to protect me. All this time I hated her, and she’s been suffering just to protect me. I—I’m an awful daughter, Randi. I’m–”
“You didn’t know,” she interrupted quickly. “Stop that. Don’t blame yourself. You didn’t know about it. You couldn’t have known, Flick. So don’t you dare put that on yourself. This Fossor piece of shit, he’s the bad guy. He’s the one that needs to go down.”
Before I could say anything else, the other girl pressed on. “I’ll look around the Garden. Maybe they’ll have information about this guy that Crossroads doesn’t. Plus from what I’ve heard, your place tends to uhh, babysit you guys a lot more and restrict what information you can have until you’re older. At Eden’s Garden, it’s all out there. If you know what to look for and how to find it, you can look up anything.”
“You’d do that?” I asked hesitantly, looking up at the girl.
“That’s a dumb question, Miss Super Reporter,” Randi shot back at me. “I’m your friend. Okay, maybe we haven’t talked in a long time, but as far as I’m concerned, we’re still friends. I mean, if you…”
“I still want to be,” I confirmed before she had even finished the sentence. “Damn straight.”
“Even if I go to Eden’s Garden and you go to Crossroads?” she asked. “This is kind of bigger than your average football team rivalry. It’s more like the US and Russia during the Cold War. Some of them can get along, like Hisao and, umm, what was her name?”
“Professor Dare,” I replied. “Virginia Dare. And before you ask, I’m pretty sure it’s the same person, but I haven’t gotten up the nerve to ask her about specifics yet.”
Miranda just shook her head. “If you still want to be friends, I want to help. If you’re really not mad about me disappearing. I… kind of thought you’d hate me after what happened with your mom.”
Smiling at the other girl, I replied, “Even if you didn’t wanna help, I’d still want to be friends, Rands. You disappearing, it… hurt. But I got over it. I’d rather be your friend than hold grudges. Grudges are just stupid. They waste time that we could spend having fun and they don’t accomplish anything, so to hell with them. You’re my friend, period. And if you happen to get any info on the son of a bitch who stole my mom, that’s even better.”
She reached across the picnic table, grabbing my hand tightly. “You’ve got it. I swear. If there’s anything in the Garden about this Fossor fucker, I’ll find it. And I’ll check out Trice and his thug friends too, see if I can figure out who they’ve been working with over at your place.”
My head shook. “I don’t want you to get in trouble, Randi. Those guys are dangerous.”
Her smirk grew while she leaned back in her seat? “Dangerous? You know who else is dangerous?”
“Oooh, ooooh, I know, I know!” A voice spoke up from beside me on the left. I turned that way to see Randi sitting there, waving her hand eagerly. “Me, I’m dangerous!”
“Don’t forget about me!” An identical voice on my right put in, and I turned to see Randi there as well.
Slowly, I looked at Randi on my right, then Randi on my left, then Randi across from me. She wasn’t teleporting, there was just that many of her. Three. There were three of her. “Wh—you’re… you can…”
All three of them grinned broadly at me, while the one across from me (the original, I guessed?) gave me a thumbs up. “Multiply, yup. I can make about twenty before things get too stressed. So believe me when I say, I’ll be okay. I know how to take care of myself, Flick, I promise.”
Unable to help myself, I laughed out loud, covering my mouth while my shoulders shook.
After watching me for a moment with all three pairs of eyes, the trio of Mirandas all spoke together as one. “What’s so funny?”
Getting myself under control, I managed a little shrug. “Oh, you know… I was just thinking about that conversation I had with Asenath. She asked about why I didn’t have many friends before Crossroads.”
Gesturing around at the three of them, I finished with, “Turns out I’ve had a bunch of them.
“It’s just that they all happen to be the exact same person.”
Snickering at that, the Miranda across from me shrugged while the ones on either side high fived over the top of my head. Those two disappeared then, leaving only the one across from me to speak. “You can trust me, Flick. If there’s anything in the Garden, I’ll find it, I swear. About your mom, about this Fossor fuck, about whoever’s trying to kill your roommate over there, I’ll dig it up.”
“We’ll have to use a code when we talk to each other,” I pointed out. “So no one knows what we’re doing, or who you are.”
“Secret codes?” Randi was smiling back at me. “Remember when we tried to make up our own language?”
“Yeah,” I drawled the word out before shaking my head. “That’s a lot harder than it sounds when people do it in books and stuff.”
The other girl’s head nodded while she informed me sagely, “It’s because we’re not twins. They cheat.”
“I’ll be sure to ask Sands and Scout about that,” I promised before taking her hand once more. “Seriously, Miranda. Be careful, okay? I don’t care what school you go to or how long it’s been, you’re my friend. I want to keep you around. I…” Swallowing hard, I blinked back tears. “I need you to be okay.”
Her gaze met mine seriously, and the girl nodded without breaking eye contact. “I’ll be careful, Flick. I promise. But let’s figure out that code right now, while we’ve got the chance.
“You and me, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”