Crazy. Real.

hanging up the normal suit

Noah Knows, Part Three, Chapters 4-8

~Four~

 

Finals week was over, and Noah hadn’t bothered to study. He simply concentrated when he needed an answer and it floated up through the page like a bobber on the end of a fishing line. Answers were his fish, and he caught each one effortlessly. He flew through his physics test with no effort at all.

He could have easily been at the top of his class, but he had no desire for the notoriety. He threw in enough wrong answers to manage a B average in everything from history to American Lit. He practiced self-sabotage in his self-guided math courses, feigning indifference and sudden bouts of incomprehension. Guidance counselors and teachers encouraged him to work harder, knowing he was capable of far more, but he resisted them with a smile of nonchalance.

A state school was good enough for him, and he thought it ought to be good enough for them. He did get a little careless on the ACT and pulled a 32, kicking himself for the excitement it generated.

When asked what he wanted to do with his life, he shrugged and evaded, saying “business” for those who simply had to know, business being the great catch-all for undecided college freshman.

Truthfully, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Had he wanted, he could probably be one of the world’s greatest mathematicians. He could probably be famous, have theorems named after him and discuss set theory in obtuse and inscrutable language. Despite all his dexterity with numbers and equations, however, he had grown weary of them.

He couldn’t see himself waiting tables when he was thirty or forty, but then again, why not? Sometimes he stood in front of the mirror and concentrated on his own face as hard as he could, hoping that something would come through, that he might see numbers of his own. He never did. That would be far too useful he thought, wryly. It just seemed he should be allowed to see his own death, since he was privy to so many others.

His friend Robert was going to die at sixty-four, of liver failure. Danny, who became a good friend after his triumph over the bully Gary (who was now an All-State linebacker on the high school football team), of colon cancer at eighty-two. Brian, a geek of a kid he had befriended in seventh grade, was slated for death at one-hundred-and-one, of nothing more than old age, he knew. That one made him laugh. He didn’t realize old age could be a cause of death.

His friends were going to live long lives, hopefully as full of wonder and beauty as one could hope. He wished he could say the same for himself.

Then there was Julie. She was one of a handful of people without numbers. Mama, John Miller, his computer science teacher and a bum at the corner of Utica and 15th street were the others. He didn’t know why they didn’t have numbers. Maybe their lives were in such flux that even fate couldn’t pin them down.

Perhaps this was why he kept trying to change things even when Julie insisted it was hopeless. The arbitrary nature of the numbers made him want to believe they were not immutable; if fate didn’t know for some, perhaps it was wrong about everyone. Maybe it was just a suggestion; a strong suggestion, but a suggestion nonetheless.

Noah contemplated this as he sat with his friends in his living room, consuming bags of chips and liter bottles of soda as they reviewed their summer plans.

“I’m going to be a lifeguard again. It’s the best job in the world,” Brian said, finishing off a bottle of Pepsi and releasing a wall-shaking belch. “Get a really great tan, watch all the hot girls, I hardly have to move. The most I did all last summer was blow on a whistle and tell kids to stop running.”

Robert groaned. “My dad says I have to get something that will look good on a resume this year. No more dicking around. He got me a job at his office, can you imagine? All summer with him looking over my shoulder. How am I ever going to relax?”

“I’m sorry, dude,” Danny said. “At least you got something lined up. My mom’s gonna kill me if I don’t find something quick.”

“I think Pearl’s is hiring for the summer. Maybe you could look there,” Julie suggested.

Danny crumpled his bag of chips and lay back in a bean bag chair.

“I wish things were easy, like when we were kids,” he said. “Stuff was so much simpler then.”

“Yeah,” Julie sighed. “Those were the days.” What are they talking about? she asked Noah, silently.

No idea, he sent back. I think their childhoods were mighty different from ours.

“Those were the days?” Miranda gasped dramatically, walking in from work. “Bemoaning our collective fates? It must be rough to be seventeen, cute, and still living at home.”

“Cut us some slack, Miranda,” Brian said, sitting up and turning to look at her. “Surely you remember what it was like to be broke and not taken seriously.”

“I’m still broke,” she laughed. “But I’m old. And being taken seriously is seriously overrated.”

“You aren’t old,” Brian protested. “You look about thirty, tops.”

“Aren’t you sweet,” she said. “Even though you’re a terrible liar.”

She waved as she walked up the stairs to her bedroom.

“Your mom really is hot, Noah,” Danny said, sliding further into his chair and closing his eyes. “She is one hot mama.”

“Shut up, already,” Julie said, kicking his leg. “You say that every time.”

“He’s right,” Brian said.

“The guys think you’re hot, Mama!” Noah shouted up the stairs.

They could hear Miranda giggle as Danny and Brian jumped up to beat Noah with pillows. Noah threw a few friendly punches as he fended them off, and suddenly Danny and Brian began beating one another, instead. They stumbled around the living room like marionettes, swinging wildly and sputtering invectives, not quite in control of their own bodies.

“Why are you hitting me?” Brian shrieked.

“You started it; why are you hitting me?” Danny demanded.

Noah extracted himself from their tussle and Julie gave him a wink.

You’re welcome, she said.

 

~Five~

 

You drink too much, Miranda.

The voice in her head scolded her, but she poured the whiskey anyway. Sitting on her bed, she heard the tumult of adolescent voices fade away as the front door slammed, and she smiled. They were good boys, good friends to Noah, and she was grateful. Tipping the tumbler back her tired body immediately relaxed.

Do yoga instead. It’s better for you.

It sounded a little bit like her mother.

Shut the hell up, she told it, draining the glass.

Drinking alone is the benchmark of an alcoholic. The voice was persistent. What next? Drinks at 8 a.m.? Flasks hidden at work?

She shoved the bottle back into her dresser drawer and slammed it.

“Happy now?” she muttered. There was no reply.

“You really are going nuts, Miranda.” she said. “Having whole conversations with yourself.”

She pulled off her ponytail holder and brushed out her hair in front of the mirror, then leaned in for a closer examination. She traced the lines of crow’s feet around her eyes and noticed the deepening creases on her forehead and around her mouth. Well earned, she thought. The skin on her neck had a vaguely crepe-y look about it, which alarmed her somewhat. She smiled brightly, scrutinizing her teeth, and considered some whitening strips.

She sat back again and tossed her hair, striking a pose. Overall, it was a serviceable face.

And Noah’s friends think you’re hot, don’t forget. She laughed out loud in the empty room. She wanted to reach for the liquor bottle again, but she resisted. If she was going to drink, she didn’t have to drink alone. She had friends for that. She picked up the phone.

So there, voice. So there.

Nancy arrived with wine and chocolate and Hannah brought frozen pizza and a package of Miranda’s favorite M&M cookies, and together they toasted their longstanding friendship and dug messily into one another’s lives.

It was a pleasant way to spend a Friday night, and Miranda felt her stress lessen with her friends near. Together, they had weathered grief and trauma and celebrated weddings and births and promotions, and without them Miranda knew she wouldn’t have survived.

Nancy was married and subsequently divorced and was currently in a relationship with her dog, claiming she wanted nothing more. Hannah was married and had three kids. They lived by the unspoken agreement that when one of them needed a girls’ night, the other two would come running.

“So what’s up, buttercup?” Hannah asked, once they were firmly ensconced around the kitchen island, wine glasses full to their rims. “Is there a reason for this particular get-together, or did you just need generalized support?”

“My brain told me that only alcoholics drink alone, so I invited you guys over,” Miranda replied.

“We’re just here so you can drink without guilt?” Nancy asked.

“It’s a good enough reason for me,” Hannah snorted.

Miranda sighed. “I’m worried about Noah, I guess. He just seems so sad sometimes.”

They didn’t know about Noah, of his awful talent that was more of a curse. It was a load that bent his shoulders and stole his smile more often than Miranda cared to admit. They knew he was a good kid, a thoughtful kid, and that he went through more trauma in his childhood than anyone should have in a lifetime. That was the extent of it, and that’s how Miranda was going to keep it. Not like they’d believe her, anyway.

“They all get so moody, don’t they?” Hannah asked. “My Esme just up and burst into tears yesterday simply because her favorite shirt was in the wash, can you believe that? I don’t know if I’ll survive ninth grade sometimes.”

“Noah’s such a good kid,” Nancy said. “He works hard, and he gets good grades, right? Do you think he needs more therapy? I know he had some after the kidnapping, but was it enough? Maybe some stuff is rising to the surface,”

“I don’t know.” Miranda said. “Maybe. When he was tiny, they said he’d probably be fine, that he was dealing with the trauma in a healthy way. But maybe he does need to talk to somebody.”

“I know I would,” Hannah said. “Just thinking about it makes me shudder.”

I don’t get a choice to simply not think about it. I had to live it, Miranda thought, with some resentment. She wished John was in town. He understood her best.

“I just want him to be happy,” she said. Maybe he needs to find a girl.”

“What about Julie?” Nancy asked. “I thought they were an item.”

“I don’t know what they are,” Miranda said. “Right now I think they’re such close friends they can’t imagine anything else. They have a bond, that’s for sure. They’ve both been through a lot. I wouldn’t mind if they became more than friends. I love that girl.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Hannah said with a grimace. “Peter has a girlfriend now, did I tell you? And between his work and her we hardly ever see him anymore. I’m afraid they’re getting too serious, too fast. That’s a whole headache all its own, believe me. I have begged David to talk to him about being careful but the man is so terrified to have that conversation! I’m afraid it’s going to fall to me along with everything else.”

“Noah will be all right, hon,” Nancy said after a while. She poured Miranda more wine. “What about you? Have you ever thought you might need more therapy? I’m worried about you.”

“I know you love your therapist,” Miranda said. “I’m just not sure I want to go. The year I went seemed like enough. It’s just overwhelming, dredging everything up again.”

“It is overwhelming, at first,” Nancy said. “It took me a year just to open up enough to get to the heart of my problems. But it feels so good to talk to somebody. Friends are one thing, but there’s something cleansing about talking to somebody who’s more impartial, you know what I mean?”

“I do. There are just so many places I don’t want to revisit.”

“But you have to, if you want healing to come. Your mind and emotions are just like your physical body, my therapist says. If something is broken, it can get set that way. So then you limp along through life. I don’t like to see you limping, honey. You and Noah deserve better.”

“What if the break is so bad they have to break it again just to set it properly?” Miranda asked. She shuddered at the thought.

“It’s painful, but honey, where are you getting on your own? You’re worried that you drink too much. You’ve completely closed yourself off to finding a new love.”

“I know that’s true,” Hannah interjected. “You don’t go on any of the dates we’ve set up for the past ten years. Instead, you have one night stands with just anybody.”

“I do not have them with just anybody,” Miranda protested. “That last guy–that was a fluke—I did not mean to do that. Why didn’t you guys stop me?”

“As if we could stop you from doing anything once you get a few drinks in you,” Nancy said. “And we did try to stop you, for the record. Especially John. He really didn’t want you to take that guy home. He was really upset.”

“What about John?” Hannah asked, suddenly. “I don’t know why you guys aren’t together by now. You’re practically inseparable. Why isn’t he here tonight, anyway? And why haven’t you slept with him?”

“He’s out of town,” Miranda said, swirling her cabernet. “And I’ve told you this a million times; we are friends, nothing more. I don’t want to ruin a friendship with sex.”

No one is going to be Mike again.” Nancy said. “But you’ve got to let go of the past. John loves you, I can see it when he looks at you. You ought to act on that.”

Miranda felt frustration growing in the pit of her stomach and heat rising to her cheeks. Neither Nancy nor Hannah knew what losing the love of your life felt like, how the grief still twisted in her chest and made it hard to breathe, how the black hole it left threatened to swallow her whole.

Mike still lived and smiled in her mind, still stroked her cheek in her dreams and told her he loved her. The air barely needed to move before she smelled his rugged scent that was like a field of grass and freshly cut pine. He filled her and emptied her at the same time, leaving her euphoric, then drained and stricken. The one night stands distracted from the pain for a brief moment, just as wine or whiskey distracted and softened the blows that loss hammered home each day.

Still, everything was temporary, and every morning the grief was waiting as she opened her eyes. John understood. But she needed his friendship far, far more than she needed his body.

His cute little body. She smiled in spite of herself.

“Miranda?”

“I can’t explain it,” she said. “I guess I need to be done with men entirely. Nobody’s going to fill the void that Mike left.”

“Nobody can replace him. He was one in a million,” Hannah said. “Just stay open to possibility, like Nancy says. Even though she doesn’t take her own advice at all.”

“Open to possibility,” Miranda repeated, nodding. The oven timer beeped from the kitchen, and she rose to retrieve the pizza. Her friends began arguing over Nancy’s devotion to her toy poodle.

She was relieved that the focus had shifted, and hoped it would stay that way.

 

~Six~

 

Noah and Julie ended their shifts together and walked out the side door of the restaurant. The air was refreshing compared to the miasma of burgers and grease that filled the dining room. Noah put his arm around Julie’s shoulders as they walked through the parking lot. School had been out for two weeks but the summer heat had not yet gathered enough strength to be truly oppressive.

“Grandpa still hasn’t gotten you to give up the bike?” she asked, nodding towards his blue Suzuki. “I know he wants you to get a car.”

“We’ll see how much longer I can put him off.” Noah answered. “I’m not giving her up any time soon. Want to take a ride?”

“Do you have my helmet with you?”

“As always,” Noah opened the bike’s pannier and handed it to her. “Where do you want to go? It’s only midnight.”

“How about the duck pond?”

Woodward Park was bright, the full moon on the pond illuminating the trees as effectively as the lamps that dotted the landscaping. Lovers walked arm in arm or snuggled on benches, and the traffic noise from the highway was barely discernable in the distance.

Noah had a bag of day-old bread Pearl gave him and handed half of the loaf to Julie before heading towards the bridge that connected the two banks. Two dozen ducks and geese were swimming slow circles at the far end of the pond, and they came quickly, squawking. Noah and Julie tore hunks of bread and threw them, and they were gobbled up almost as soon as they hit the water.

“I wonder if they’ve ever had a midnight snack before,” Noah mused.

Julie pointed at a small duck in the back of the pack. “Look at that little one. She can’t get any.” With delicate aim, she threw a piece of bread at the small bird, but it was snatched away by a drake.

“Butthead,” Julie muttered. Suddenly the flock of birds parted down the center and a perfect aisle formed between them. The small duck paddled through it like a knight on his way to coronation, as though pulled by an invisible cord. Julie bent to place a piece of bread directly in front of her, which was swiftly and–Noah liked to think–gratefully eaten. She drew out her ever-present notepad and began to sketch the scene.

“You never play by the rules, do you?” he asked.

“The asshole rules?” she asked.

“Survival of the fittest.”

“That’s the one. I notice you don’t like it a whole lot, either.”

“I try to be impartial and let things happen, but it seems like it only gets harder and harder as I get older,” he admitted.

“You were more philosophical about things when you were younger. And I wanted to change everything. It’s confusing,” she said, finishing her sketch and straightening up. “I stopped trying to figure out why we have power a long time ago. But I do like to mess with things.”

“Like overly-greedy ducks.”

“Why not? It isn’t like it really matters to anybody else whether a little duck gets some bread. It doesn’t really change anything. It only matters to the duck.”

“But maybe that duck will grow up to become a great motivational duck-speaker in the future. You don’t know.” Noah smiled. “Everything we do changes something else, somehow. Like the butterfly that flaps its wings on one continent and causes a tsunami on another.”

“Now you sound like my dad. Our experiment with the lottery wasn’t catastrophic, was it?”

“No. But who knows what paths we’d be on now if we hadn’t done it?”

“I’m almost sure I like this path better than the other one.”

“I wonder sometimes,” he said. Sometimes I think about the what-ifs. Like what if I had never gotten kidnapped and we had never moved. I never would have met you. What if the bad things lead to good things and the good things lead to bad things? I’m conflicted. Sometimes I feel no smarter than that little duck, wondering what just happened.”

“Which is why I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Julie.”

“Well, that’s good to know.”

“You already knew it.”

“I suppose I did.”

They stood in silence then, using up the last of the bread and watching the birds disperse, who lost interest as soon as the final crust was thrown.

Walking back to the bike, Julie lingered a moment to sketch a beautiful spiderweb, stretched between the branches of an azalea bush. The black and yellow orb-weaver in the center was magnificent, stretched out in the center of the strands, awaiting its next meal. A colorful moth the size of a doily, all flutter and swoop, careened suddenly into the edge of the web and flailed violently. The spider leapt into action, racing towards the hapless insect.

Julie frowned, feeling the whole trajectory of evolution; she was bound, but not committed.

Before it could begin the grisly job of wrapping its dinner, the moth gave a jolt on the sticky fibers and was free, winging its way over the bushes once more and into the darkness. Julie glanced over her shoulder to see if Noah had noticed, but he was busy at his motorcycle, strapping on his helmet.

“Sorry spider, she muttered, hurrying back to the bike. “Better luck next time.”

 

~Seven~

 

Miranda awoke in the thickest hour of the night and sat upright, trying to bring her breath back to normal. Not since Noah was five years old; not since her world had come apart at the seams did she have a dream as vivid and bright as this one. As sure as she was sitting drenched in sweat, some unnamed terror was about to be unleashed once again on herself and her son.

She staggered upright and groped her way to the hallway, glancing both ways as she crossed lest there be some vestige of a demonic entity awaiting her, having escaped from the confines of her own tumultuous brain through some loophole in subconscious protocol. There was nothing there, and she continued on to Noah’s room.

Standing over him, bathed in moonlight from his window, she felt her natural heartbeat slowly return. He was wrapped haphazardly in the sheets without any sign of distress. She stood for a long time, listening to him breathe, and gazed around his room, remembering the days when Winnie The Pooh and Elmo had decorated the walls, and marveling at how quickly they had been replaced by posters of obscure bands and Julie’s artwork.

Noah stirred and sighed, brow furrowing for a moment as he mumbled incoherently. She leaned forward and brought his comforter up around his shoulders, tucking it around his neck.

“Hugh.” he breathed. “No, Hugh.”

She froze, icy fingers tracing every vertebra along her back. She listened intently, but Noah only turned over and began snoring softly. The dream she had just left was in her face now, floating there in Noah’s room, wreaking havoc in her mind that turned the peaceful scene sour and made her heart begin a rapid timpani solo against her ribs.

Her nightmare featured the hulking figure again, a great shapeless form that drew closer and then suddenly dissolved into Hugh, larger than she remembered and covered in scrawling black script that she could not make out in the pouring rain. Noah stood beside her as usual, still tiny and clinging to her hand, still with his mouth stitched shut, still communicating to her in her mind.

This time he only said Mama, run. Mama, we have to run but she had no power to move, and her arms hung uselessly at her sides as Hugh approached. His eyes were yellow and filled with rage and he reached out, mouth moving wordlessly but no doubt describing the plans he had for her.

She could hear the Camaro’s engine in the distance and desperately hoped it would mow Hugh down and leave him crumpled in the mud-splashed gutter before he could grab her. Instead he reached for Noah, encircling his neck with his massive hands and lifting him off the ground as his small legs kicked. She pounded on Hugh with her fists, suddenly released from her paralysis, but he was impenetrable as a wall, and Noah’s face turned blue and then black and his body went limp as she screamed and cried and fell on her knees.

Now, in the quiet of Noah’s room, she was on her knees again, softly brushing the blond hair out of his face, tears coursing down her cheeks as she put her face on his mattress and wept. He stirred again and woke up, startled.

“Mama, what’s the matter? What happened?”

She couldn’t speak but only shook her head, trying to make the tears stop, trying desperately to get a grip, but the veil that separated reality from her imagination was shredded. Nothing seemed solid except Noah’s warm hand on her own and she gripped it.

“Mama, it’s OK.” He seemed to understand, as he so often did, and he sat up and took both her hands in his. “It was just a nightmare, Mama.”

“I know–” she managed to choke out. “But it was so real.”

“But it wasn’t. Mama, come here.” He pulled her to her feet and made her sit beside him on the bed. He drew her into a hug. She felt his heartbeat against her ear and it comforted her and she felt her tears subside. Whatever the future held, they would meet it together, and somehow they would be all right.

“Were you having a dream, right before I woke you up?” Miranda asked. “I thought I heard you say something in your sleep?”

He frowned, and shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t remember anything.”

He gave her an extra squeeze and then released her. “Can you go back to sleep? It’s only, what, 3 a.m.?”

“The witching hour,” she said, yawning. “No wonder.”

She left him, stretched out under his blankets, looking smaller than usual, and checked the front door deadbolt before creeping back to bed. Her whole room seemed sinister, however, and she couldn’t get back to sleep. She got up a few hours later to watch the sun rise from the living room windows. Slowly, she got ready for the day and left for work.

Noah heard the door close and rolled over. He slept fitfully, as well, feeling her unrest from across the hallway and the fear that was thick in the air.

He had lied. Bad dreams found him, as well; Joanie came back from the dead, clawing at his bedroom door and calling him in her unctuous, hard voice. A gigantic shape he thought was Mr. McGraw chased him, and he turned just in time to see it was not his old captor but someone new, someone powerfully built with small, yellow eyes. He didn’t want to worry his mother, but something ominous perched inside his brain like a greasy black crow, digging its claws into his subconscious and making him profoundly uneasy.
~Eight~

 

“Do you think dreams can be prophetic?” Miranda asked John one afternoon as they had lunch at the mall. “I mean, not all dreams, but some?”

“Prophetic? Like, they come true?” John asked, stroking his graying beard as he always did.

“Not like, everything that happens in them happens, but maybe they’re a warning that something bad is going to happen?”

“Miranda, what are you trying to say?”

“I keep having this nightmare,” Miranda confessed. “Hugh comes back and tries to kill Noah.”

“Oh, man,” John said. His face was full of concern.

“I’ve had it every week for the last month or so. It’s always the same. I wouldn’t worry, but I had nightmares like it before. Like, when Noah turned five, and all hell broke loose. I had nightmares right before that, of bad things happening.”

Her eyes filled with unexpected tears and spilled over her lashes. She groped in her purse for a tissue.

John shook his head and handed her a napkin. Miranda dabbed at her eyes.

“Do you even know where he is now? Or if he’s out of jail?” he asked.

“I don’t know anything about him,” Miranda said. “I put him out of my head completely. I don’t even remember how long he was supposed to be in jail, except I thought it wasn’t long enough, He’s probably out and living in Mobile. His whole business is there, so that makes sense. John, I’m sure he could figure out where we live; he’s smart. No, he’s more than smart, he’s shrewd, and crafty. He’s a snake. I’m sure he knows we’d move to Tulsa to be near my parents. So he could find us. He could find us and I don’t know what he’d do.”

She started to cry again, the memory of him looming large and terrifying.

John reached across the table and took her hand. “Why would he want to find you guys and get himself in trouble all over again? You had a bad dream; that doesn’t mean it’s going to come true.”

Miranda nodded and inhaled deeply. “He still scares me, after all this time. I thought I put it behind me.” Her eyes reddened again but she put the napkin to her nose, hard, and stopped the tears before they started.

“That was a horrible thing to live through, but look at you. You did. And you’ve done more than just survive; you’ve made a good life for you and Noah.”

“I bring strange men home from bars,” she said.

“Oh, come on. It’s not exactly a habit. You just get a little out of control when you drink too much.”

“I don’t see you pulling crap like that. I feel like I dishonor Mike’s memory every time I do it. Why do I do it?”

“You’re self-medicating, letting yourself get nice and numb. You know this. I wish you wouldn’t do it. I tried to tell you to stop Memorial Day weekend, but you were too far gone at that point. You just laughed. Why don’t you get on some legitimate medication? Maybe some anti-anxiety meds would take away that urge to, you know–engage in risky behavior. You know you’re just looking for something to take away the pain.”

“I don’t feel like I’m in pain,” she said, lying.

“We’re all in pain, Miranda. You told me once not to stuff it, but you’ve stuffed yours so far down you can’t even see it.”

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “I like to think I’m limping along just fine.”

He took his glasses off and polished them on his shirt. “You’ve raised Noah into a fine young man, and you know how ardently I admire you. You’re stronger than you think. Say it with me.”

“I am stronger than I think,” Miranda said, obediently.

“I think you are the strongest person I have ever known, to be quite honest.” John said. “And if that rat bastard Hugh comes after you, I have no doubt you’ll kick him right in his shriveled rat balls.”

Miranda looked through watery eyes at him.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“I don’t know, either. I’m the best friend you have,” John said.

He kissed Miranda’s cheek before they parted. He watched as she walked down the sidewalk and turned the corner before he climbed into his car and headed back to the Tulsa World building. He hated to see her so down, and he hoped his words had been as encouraging to her as she said they were. She definitely looked a little more cheery by the end of their lunch, and that made him happy.

Seeing her always made his day; that had been true for a long time. Almost a year ago he waved to her from across the street as she watered her garden and it hit him full in the face. He loved her, and he had for some time. The exact moment that his care for her had made the leap across the abyss into passion was a mystery to him, but there it was, pumping through his veins and bringing a familiar ache to his heart. It caught him off guard; he went to his room, sat on the end of his bed, and cried.

He couldn’t believe making room for someone else in his heart could happen, and yet it occurred despite himself. Miranda made his days bright again with her smile, her sense of humor, and her friendship, and somehow those things burrowed down deep in his heart, bringing blooms to a garden that laid dormant for so long.

He felt guilt but Jenny told him he had too much to offer to be a hermit. He didn’t need permission from anyone but himself to love again, and so he wrapped it up, put a bow on it, and gave it. If at some point Miranda should feel the same for him, he would be ready. In the meantime, he was content to wait.

Noah Knows, Part Three, Chapters 1-3

Read from the beginning of Part One here

Read from the beginning of Part Two here

 

Part Three

Chapter One

The muscular, handsome man stared into the mirror, doing his daily affirmations. His New Age therapist was a complete wacko, but she was hot as a firecracker and he paid close attention to every word from her mouth, and participated in every class she offered.

Yoga was his favorite. Watching her in her tight cotton yoga pants gave him more than enough fire in his belly. When he got out on parole they hooked up for a year and she demonstrated her downward dog in more ways than one before her wheedling voice had become too much. Always nagging him to let go of his anger and let the universe fill him with joy. What a load of shit.

He liked daily affirmations, though. The idea that he could make things happen with words, that he liked. He was in control. His words became reality. And why not? Wherever he went, people jumped for him.

He stood, locking eyes with his own reflection, and spoke what was not as though it was.

He recited them three times each and nodded. Good. He could almost feel things falling into place. He did affirmations the whole time he was locked up; he said those same words into the piece of polished stainless steel that passed for a mirror in his cell.

He didn’t care if his roommate thought he was insane; he knew better than to say anything, anyway. Hugh wasn’t the biggest man in prison but he was feared, by almost everyone. Before long his roommate started affirmations of his own. Stupid things like I am liked; I am free. He snorted.

You had to stay clean if you wanted to get paroled. You had to be squeaky clean. It wasn’t hard for him. He didn’t have to cringe and hide and try to stay on everyone’s good side. He made it clear from week one that he wasn’t anybody’s bitch, and he rose to the top just like the cream always did. Before long he was managing work crews and giving the guards financial advice.

He took a jar of expensive hair gel and scooped up a dollop, rubbing it vigorously between his palms before slicking it through his graying hair. His square jaw was clean shaven and he had no tattoos. That was important to him. He had refused, more than once, the obligatory prison tattoo.

If you were a badass you didn’t have to write it on your body. He was glad to be out, though he was respected in prison like he was respected in business. A man like himself was respected anywhere. He’d been out almost a year now but he remembered the smell of prison air like it was yesterday. He wasn’t going back, ever. He would go to the morgue first.

He went back to work the day he got out, managing the money he left as smoothly as before. His accounts manager had kept the business going, although he had made a mess of the books. Real estate wasn’t rocket science, but you had to know what you were doing.

His manager groveled, of course, but he fired his ass anyway. He lost a lot of money in the lawsuit. It didn’t surprise him that she filed it, but it did surprise him when she won. How any jury could have sided with her, he didn’t know. The blood pounded in his ears.

He did deep breathing exercises to regain control. Soon, he’d make everything right. He looked in the mirror for one final check. He was looking good. The dark blue Hugo Boss suit was his favorite.

Deciding to do one more series of affirmations just for good measure, Hugh cleared his throat and spoke forcefully.

“Miranda is dead.”

“Miranda is dead.”

“Miranda is dead.”

 

~Two~

The voice was persistent. “Mama.”

“What do you want, Noah?” she snapped. Her head was pounding and without opening her eyes she knew the room was far, far too bright.

There was a deep sigh and she regretted snapping at him.

“I’m sorry, honey. What do you need?”

“The man in your bed needs to go home. Grandma and Grandpa are coming over.”

He sounded exasperated. She opened one eye and frowned.

“Man?”

“The man next to you.”

She opened both eyes and rolled over, taking the sheet with her so she didn’t flash her teen-aged son. Sure enough, there was a man there, snoring. David? Devon? Daniel? She sat up. Noah looked at her with brows raised. God, he was tall.

“I’ll get rid of him,” she said. “Go on to school; don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t have school. It’s Memorial Day.”

Hence her celebration on a Sunday night. She poked the snoring form beside her.

“Hey, dude. Get up. Time to go home.” He rolled over but didn’t wake up. Miranda’s head throbbed. She kicked him. He opened one eye. “Get up, dammit. Time to go.”

He looked from Noah to Miranda several times, confused. “Who is that?” he asked.

“I’m her boy lover and I’m about to kick your ass,” Noah responded.

The guy sat up, found his pants on the floor and worked his way out of the room. Noah turned to leave, too.

“Noah?” Miranda said, laying back carefully on her pillow. “Could you bring me some Advil? Like, six?”

“I’ll bring you four. Six is ridiculous.”

He returned with the pills and a large glass of iced tea. She chugged the glass dry, handed it back to him and flopped on her bed.

“Thank you, baby.”

Noah saw the man to the door and groaned deeply as he shut it behind him. He picked up armfuls of layered newspapers and carried them to the recycling bin. Two boxes of pizza sat on the sofa table with slices moldering beneath their lids. Mama called to him from the bedroom.

“What time are Grandma and Grandpa getting here?”

“Noonish.”

“Why are they coming again?”

“It’s my birthday.”

Miranda grimaced.

“Oh my God…”

“Don’t worry about it. Please. Let’s just move on and have a good day.”

“I’ll get up; I’ll help you clean. You shouldn’t clean on your birthday.”

“It’s almost ten o’clock. If you get in the shower now you might look normal by noon. Please, just take care of yourself. Do me that favor.”

“Don’t tell Grandma I was out drinking last night.”

“Why would I do that? Like I want to hear that conversation again? It’s going to be obvious you were out partying if you don’t get your ass in the bathroom and do something about your face.”

“Brat.”

“Bitch.”

She stuck her tongue out at him. He was turning into such a handsome kid. Big smile, strong jaw, blue eyes. Wicked sense of humor. She didn’t deserve him.

“I love you,” she said, suddenly.

“I know,” he said. “I love you too.”

He shut the door of her room. She struggled up from the mattress and headed to the bathroom, but she turned away in disgust at the devastation in the mirror. God, what a mess. She didn’t mean to get so blasted last night, and definitely didn’t mean to bring somebody home.

Of course, she never did.

She turned the shower to hot and cranked it full blast. She lathered her face and washed away every remnant of makeup that had transformed her appearance overnight from catwalk model to murdered hooker.

When she emerged, the sharp edges of her hangover dulled, she wrapped her hair in a towel and rifled through a heap of clothes to find something moderately clean. She heaved the rest into a laundry basket.

Things just piled up so quickly. Housekeeping seemed less and less important to her. She could smell citrus cleanser and knew Noah was working on the other bathroom. He was a good boy. Maybe this time she wouldn’t get a lecture from her mother about a visit from the health department.

She chose a bright pink blouse from the back of her closet, threw it on and grabbed her last clean pair of pants. She put on just enough makeup to hide the dark circles under her eyes and put some color in her cheeks. The last thing she wanted was an interrogation on how much she drank these days.

She stripped her bed of its sheets that smelled faintly of whiskey and Aqua Velva. More regret and no small bit of shame knocked at the door of her heart but she steadfastly refused to answer.

“Ta-da!” she said to Noah, one arm raised to show off her tidied room.

“Very good,” he said, nodding. “Looks like the room of a normal woman for a change, not some sort of rodent.”

“Oh, come on.” She deflated slightly. “Was it really that bad?”

“I just threw away twenty-eight half-empty boxes of Chinese food, Mama. I counted”

“I really meant to clean up,” she said. “But then everybody was going out and I figured the mess wasn’t going anywhere.”

“It definitely wasn’t. Unless you count what the mice carried away.”

“We have mice? Maybe they’ll eat the roaches.”

“Not while there’s Lo Mein and fried rice on the menu.”

“I can’t win, can I?” Miranda asked. She walked into the living room. “This is an amazing transformation. I forgot we had a floor.”

The doorbell buzzed and Noah took a deep breath.

“Ready?” he asked. Miranda nodded.

Lucy and Dale entered and hugs were exchanged. Lucy carried a large cake, her signature German chocolate three-layer. Seventeen candles were stuck in the top. She placed it on the kitchen counter, glanced around and put her hands on her hips.

“It looks great in here, Noah,” She said.

“You think I can’t clean?” Miranda asked.

“I’m sorry dear. Have you been cleaning?”

“No. It was Noah,” she said, slumping into a chair.

Lucy blew a raspberry at her daughter and hugged her grandson again. “Anyway, it looks a darn sight better than the last time we dropped by.”

“Dropped by being the operative phrase there, Mom. You didn’t even say you were coming over! If you had just given me some warning.”

“Warning? It would have taken more than a warning. This place looked like an episode from that show—what’s that show? Hoarders. Where they’re always finding dead cats buried under mountains of laundry and such.”

“Mom! It was not that bad.”

“If you say so, honey.”

Noah cleared his voice and they stopped abruptly.

“Sorry, Noah. Grandma will try to reign in the lectures for your birthday,’ she said. “So how does it feel to be seventeen?”

“About the same as it did yesterday,” he responded with a smile.

“How’s the restaurant job?” Dale asked.

“Not going to buy a yacht any time soon,” Noah said. “But it’s pretty good money.”

“Have you thought about buying a car? Grandma and I always help with that first car purchase, and we have nightmares about you on that motorcycle. Last year your cousin Tori got herself a nice used Toyota Camry. Have you been looking in the classifieds at all?”

“I was hoping you might help me with that, actually.” Noah said. Grandpa loved talking about cars, and Noah was happy to have a subject to occupy his time. “I thought you and I might take some for a test drive. I’ve got them all circled in last Sunday’s paper. Want to see?”

He motioned towards the living room and they left the kitchen, Dale enthusiastically comparing the merits of Toyota vs. Honda, as Noah nodded and asked questions.

“That boy makes his Grandpa so happy,” Lucy said, shaking her head. “How is he doing at school? Are his grades any better?”

“He’s doing fine,” she said dismissively, though Noah wasn’t exactly an all-star student, except at math. “He likes to write, apparently. Who knew?”

“What about Julie? Last time I saw her she seemed a little…rough.”

“She wears too much eyeliner, you mean. Yeah, she’s a little prickly. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, you know? I love that kid.”

“Are they romantic at all? I never know what to think.”

“Noah hasn’t told me anything.” Miranda said. “Mostly they are fiercely protective of one another. Like siblings, or twins. I don’t know what they’ve got, but it’s special.”

“I’m sure Noah is good for her.”

“I think they’re good for each other, Mom. Always have been.”

 

They went for steak and potatoes at a ritzy chophouse in downtown Tulsa. Lucy and Dale talked a lot, filling everyone in on family news. There was a new baby in the family; photos were passed around and discussions made about the appropriateness of naming a girl Cameron.

“Speaking of girls,” Dale said, waggling his eyebrows. “Anybody in your life that we should be aware of?”

“None whatsoever,” Noah said, dragging the last of his filet mignon through steak sauce before polishing it off.

“Oh I cannot believe that,” Lucy exclaimed. “Look at you; you’re about the best looking kid I’ve ever seen in all my life.”

“And you’re not a bit prejudiced, are you Grandma?”

“Anyway, Noah, you’ve got plenty of time. Don’t worry about finding the right girl. You’ll know when she comes along.”

“I’m not worried, Grandma. I’m seventeen. Give me another ten years, maybe, and then I’ll be a little anxious.”

In truth, he tried his best not to look at girls. He honed his ability to block out the noise that came his way, but things got through. Especially when he touched someone. He would brush past a kid and a series of numbers or words would fall into his head.

School was a vast minefield of emotions and thoughts and feelings that he had no business knowing, and it wore him out. He wondered what to do with all of it. Why should anyone know the way they were going to die, and when? It wasn’t like anyone would believe him, if he decided to tell.

Looking at his grandparents he saw numbers like they were stamped on their foreheads. 5262025 was Grandpa’s. Stroke. Grandma’s was 12282029. Flu. That one really bothered him. Three days after Christmas.

He tried to eat the rest of his potato but his appetite was gone.

“You’re not upset, are you?” Dale asked. “We’re just teasing about the girls.” He put his hand on Noah’s arm.

“No, no, I’m fine,” he said, forcing a smile. “I hope I get hungry again so I can have some cake when we get home. Do we have ice cream, Mama?”

He turned to Miranda, who also looked concerned. No numbers decorated her forehead, thank God. He couldn’t read Mama, and he was happy about that.

“We’ll pick some up on the way home,” she said.

Dale paid the tab and gave the pretty young waitress an exorbitant tip. She thanked him profusely and turned to Noah.

“You have a happy birthday, OK?”

She smiled broadly, showing off a dimple in each rosy cheek, and touched his arm. He nodded and hurried with his family out the door. He winced as the numbers drifted into his mind. 632018 they said, and he glanced back in time to see the words floating across her smooth clear brow. Overdose.

 

~Three~

High school was a necessary evil, Noah thought, and he glided through the hallways practically invisible. The predictability of it was the one thing he found soothing; unexpected events rarely occurred, and he liked that.

In the world anything could happen, but within the confines of the brick and mortar of the high school building, extraordinary events were simply not allowed. Any hint of the extraordinary was summarily quashed. Noah kept his head down, joined no clubs, played no sports, and tried not to be noticed.

He mastered differential calculus in ninth grade but his guidance counselor didn’t know where to send him after that. He studied Einstein and Fermat and Schrodinger in his spare time, breezed through physics, and discovered a latent talent for writing.

He succeeded in being invisible at that, too, until he was noticed by his English Comp teacher, Ms. Armstrong. Mid-forties and enthusiastic, she gave him several A’s on his essays, and read sections of them out loud to the class. This made him painfully uncomfortable, and he tried to write more clumsily to divert her attention.

“Why are you trying so hard to fail?” she asked, fixing him with a penetrating stare, her green eyes flashing.

“I’m not trying to fail,” he answered, shifting uneasily. There was something about her that made him want to run.

“I know what you can do,” she retorted. “It seems you’re not putting forth your best effort. Is everything all right? At home and all?”

She put her hand on his arm.

It was awkward, and he felt claustrophobic. She wasn’t threatening, but there was something very wrong here.

“If you need any extra help, after school or anything,” she said, moving closer. “I’m always available. We can meet at my house.”

It hit him like an errant wave at the beach, slapping him cold in the face and leaving him speechless. His English teacher was making a pass at him. Her hand on his arm was very warm, and he began to sweat.

Images cascaded into his mind like leaves from the autumn trees outside the window: he and Ms. Armstrong locked in an embrace, Ms. Armstrong fired from her job, Ms. Armstrong in court, arguing her innocence and claiming undying love and affection for her boy lover. He leapt away from her like she was on fire.

He almost ran to his locker and turned the knob with trembling fingers. He glanced over his shoulder as though she might be chasing him, then chastised himself for the thought. In spite of his determination to get away as fast as possible, he was painfully aroused.

Ms. Armstrong never gave him such great marks after that. At the end of the school year, he sensed a growing romance between her and the science teacher, and was relieved when they announced their engagement. Mr. Hass was easily two decades younger than Ms. Armstrong but well within the bounds of legality, so scandal was averted.

“What a skank,” Julie said, rolling her black-lined eyes as they discussed it one afternoon not long afterwards.

They were settling into a pepperoni pizza at Noah’s house. Robert, a fellow junior, joined them. His mother had died of cancer, too, and Julie tolerated him for that.

“How stupid are you?” Robert asked. “She throws herself at you and you run away.” He laughed loudly. “You gay, bro?”

“No,” Noah said, unperturbed, as he folded a slice into his mouth. “Just picky, I guess.”

“She’s beautiful. Older women are the best, don’t you know? You should have tapped that, man.”

“You’re a true romantic,” Julie said.

“I’ll send the next one your way,” Noah said to Robert.

“Not likely! You’re the type they all like. Blonde, blue eyes, tall. Sheesh, why can’t you at least get a zit or two, make us all feel better? I bet you think about her.”

Noah grinned sheepishly. Robert laughed and grabbed the last piece of pizza, covering it with a package of red pepper flakes.

“Seriously, you could have any girl at school. Why don’t you go for it? Amanda looks all goofy at you. She’s cute. What about her?”

“Don’t like short girls.” Noah said. Amanda’s numbers were 8132030. Cancer. She was going to die in her early 30s.

“Or brunettes, or green eyes, or tall, or medium, or anything else. You’re gay.”

Noah shrugged. There was no way to explain that knowing the date and form of a girl’s death had a decidedly negative effect on his affections. Their numbers lit up when he brushed them in the hallway or concentrated on their faces for half a second. It always worked. He caught Julie’s eye and she gave him a sympathetic look.

Sorry, man, she thought.

Robert laughed again. “You ain’t gay. I’ve seen you look at girls. You’re just afraid as shit, like the rest of us.”

“You’re not afraid. You have a girlfriend.”

“Only because she asked me out, man. Remember? I’m a pussy like you.”

“Girlfriends take time and money, right?” Noah asked. “I have a job and barely any time now. If I get a girlfriend, I’ll have neither time nor money. Sounds like a lot of stress I don’t need.”

“Ah, but it does have its own perks, if you know what I mean.” Robert smiled. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Noah my boy.”

“I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”

“You sound real excited about it.”

“He’s not gay,” Julie protested, finally. “He’s an android, like Spock. Eternally rational.”

“Spock, huh. Yeah, I can see you as a Vulcan.”

“Live long and prosper, dude.” Noah flashed the hand signal.

“Give Amanda a call, I’m telling you,” Robert said. “Ask her out. Have some fun. School’s almost out; you’ll have plenty of time this summer.”

“Not so. I’m getting more hours for the summer.”

Robert groaned.

 

It was true: when Noah wasn’t in school he was usually working, and he liked it that way. Waiting tables wasn’t going to stop global warming or save the coral reefs, but it challenged him and kept him busy enough. He wanted busy—too much free time and he found his mind taking turns down dark and disturbing paths—and Pearl’s Grill, as one of the more recent eateries near the mall, was the place to get busy.

There was nothing startling or eclectic on the menu, but simply being new gave the place the novel appeal that the bored and hungry masses wanted. The restaurant was hopping every night, and Noah worked almost all of them from five until midnight. Julie worked part time since she took art classes after school, and they had a running contest to see who could get the best tip.

They had a lot of regulars, too, who asked for either Julie or Noah by name. Having special powers, it seemed, wasn’t limited to manipulating clouds and dispelling death; they worked in something as banal as the service industry, as well.

Push a little, just a little, and Noah could tell what people wanted before they knew themselves. Often, he found himself delivering extra lemons or another side of dressing before the customer asked, before they even thought of asking. He offered dessert only to those who wanted it, and no one, no one, ever asked him for the bill.

“Our psychic waiters,” the regulars called them both, and they didn’t mind. Because they were.

He ignored the numbers as he worked, though, and he liked that. He had a theory that if he stayed busy enough, ignored enough of the numbers and whispered thoughts that pulled and plucked at his consciousness all day long that one day he would wake up and they would be gone. Maybe the divinely sadistic gift-giver that bestowed upon him this unique ability would become irritated at his ingratitude and take them back.

Unfortunately, there were times he couldn’t stop his math-driven brain from puzzling out the exact age of death as soon as he saw the numbers. Forty-three years, six months and two days he calculated, looking down at a kid with ice cream dripping from his spoon as he shoveled a skillet cookie into his mouth. Ninety-four years, two months and twenty-five days was the boy’s mother. She was going to outlive her kid, a depressing thought he tried to ignore as he picked up his tip and bussed their table.

One night he had a seven table station and was very close to being in the weeds; a server term that didn’t quite capture the panic involved. More like in the minefield, he thought, as he balanced a tray heavy-laden with burgers and sweet potato fries.

He said good-bye to one table which was quickly bussed and filled with another family. He wiped his hands on a towel and went to greet them.

He was halfway through his speech about the daily specials when it came to a spectacular, screeching halt. There were identical numbers hanging just above their heads. 652016. Tonight. Car Wreck.

He took them in with a glance. Young, mid-twenties, beaming with newlywed fever. Beside the woman was a car seat and a sleeping baby with a pink bow. The same numbers floated above it. The man and woman were looking at him curiously.

“Are you all right?” the woman asked.

Noah tried to compose himself. “Just lost my train of thought there for a moment. What was I saying? Right; appetizers. Our potato skins are legendary. Also, our grilled brie. Seems a little weird, I know, but take my word for it. Think fried cheese but way, way better. You’ll love it.”

He knew they would.

He talked, pouring on the charm, wishing he could make them stay until after midnight. He wanted to make time move faster, make the calendar page flip to tomorrow so the numbers would be wrong.

Maybe he could make the numbers change to decades in the future. Maybe he could erase the spectral horror that hovered just above the baby’s wisp of hair, wipe away the terrible fate that stamped her rosy cheeks and negated all the promise contained within her.

Her mother took her out of her car seat and sat her on her lap. The baby shoved a napkin into her face and chortled, giving a Noah gummy smile. He could not stop glancing at them as he moved about his station, and stared at the immutable numbers that seemed to be leering back at him.

He lost his concentration with his other tables. He dropped silverware into peoples’ laps, got orders wrong, and spilled drinks. The doomed family of three, however, got impeccable service. Julie noticed him from across the room and gave him a curious look.

Her question floated to his mind: what’s up?

“Death tonight,” he thought, and she understood.

She shook her head as she took a drink order. “Just, damn; that’s all I have to say about that.”

The couple really liked him; it was obvious. They asked him about his future plans and kept him at their table, chatting aimlessly. They enjoyed their evening more than others who cleaned their plates and left hastily, anxious to be back at home in front of the TV.

It was their first time out as a family, they told him. The baby was five months old but struggled shortly after birth with a respiratory virus and was hospitalized. It was a scary time, they said, and they were too afraid to go out until now, until they were sure she was healthy, although the doctors told them she was just fine. Parental nervousness, they laughed. So silly.

So silly. Noah laughed with them, but it stuck in his throat and he coughed, then excused himself to attend to one of his neglected customers. He tried to focus. They were almost done. He checked his watch: 10:15. Far too soon.

What could he do? Perhaps he could tell them, beg them to take a bus home instead of their own car. How unbelievable would that sound? His premonition said car wreck, not bus wreck, so it was possible.

He delivered food to one of his other tables, took another order, and went to the server’s station to print out the family’s tab. He would tell them what he had to say, crazy be damned. He had to try.

He went to the dining room but they were gone. A busser cleared their table of empty glasses.

One of the other servers tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a credit card receipt.

“You’re so distracted, Noah. They said they needed to go, so I rang them up. They said to tell you good bye; they really enjoyed themselves.”

He pocketed receipt in his apron and walked quickly out the front door, into the parking lot. The family was nowhere in sight. There was no one he could throw his body in front of, no car bumper upon which he could hang his pleading form.

They were gone, in more ways than one, leaving him with knowledge he didn’t want and the memory of faces he would never forget. He sat down on the curb and put his head in his hands.

“What did you expect?” Julie asked from beside him. She lit a cigarette. “Why would you even try, after all this time? After all we’ve learned? You can’t outwit death. It just comes. It’s a fucking bitch.”

“Just once I’d like to think that this power, or whatever you want to call it, has a purpose,” he said. “That maybe I’m meant to help somebody.”

She inhaled deeply and blew a cloud of smoke into the summer night. “I stopped believing it had a purpose when Mom died. It’s just a fluke in our dented DNA, Noah. I thought you had decided that, too.”

“I try to tell myself that. But then we won the lottery and I thought maybe not. Hope springs eternal and all that crap.”

“Crap is right. Want a smoke? Might make you feel better.”

“I better get back inside. I still have an hour.”

“I’m outta here,” she said. “Best tip tonight was 25 percent, I think. You’ll have to check it for me later. Some fat dude liked my ass I guess. What about you?”

“Thirty,” he sighed, looking at the credit card receipt and gesturing down the highway as an ambulance and a fire truck screamed past. “From those dead people.”

Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapter 11

Read from the beginning of Part One here

Read from the beginning of Part Two here

 

~Eleven~

 

John was drowning in debt. There was no way to run from it now. Jenny’s medical bills were over a million dollars, and his insurance covered barely half of that. He considered selling the house and moving back to California to live with his parents until he could get a handle on his finances. He didn’t want to declare bankruptcy–not yet–but it was going to take some serious intervention to keep him from the inevitable lawsuits. Creditors could be vicious.

He didn’t want to leave Tulsa; it was a great town. He liked his job at the World and had lots of friends. Julie would be devastated, naturally. She shared such a bond with Noah, and he flinched at the thought of pulling them apart. She was not your average girl, he knew this, and while he did not know the full extent of her power, he was well aware that she was blessed with unusual abilities.

It was Jenny who brought it to his attention, of course. The Absent Minded Professor, she called him affectionately. She said he’d forget that they had five children if she didn’t remind him.

She had played a memory game with their youngest on the office floor one night when Julie was three years old to show him what she called Julie’s “mind games.”

He never forgot the image of the small girl, tiny fingers flipping over the square cards with animal pictures on them to make matches within seconds. She was never wrong, finding the mate each time without hesitation. Jenny’s eyes were wide, staring at him with a small smile on her face. He shook his head, disbelieving, until Julie played the game three times in a row, never missing a match.

Since then, they had tried to impress upon Julie the importance of keeping her talents somewhat hidden, making sure she understood just how special they were. Jenny told her to stay out of peoples’ minds, that it was rude to go poking around uninvited, and Julie had nodded soberly, a serious child with dark, fathomless eyes. He worried about her.

Until she found Noah. He marveled at how perfectly suited they were for each other, and thanked god for the gift of such a friend. He knew from Miranda that Noah had secrets talents of his own that increased the depth of their bond, and he feared the consequences of separating them. He didn’t know how to tell her they were moving.

In the end, of course, he didn’t have to.

Tears pooling in her eyes, she confronted him after school one winter day, saying she had been hit with the knowledge while she was eating lunch; it hit her in the middle of her bologna sandwich. She told Noah, and together they agreed that such a thing must not happen.

He tried to explain to Julie the depth of his financial distress but she wasn’t really listening. How could she understand? At nine, she knew only one thing, and that was that her only friend was going to be taken away from her. Even promises of a German Shepherd puppy and visits to the beach didn’t help; she was destroyed at the thought of moving. She ran from the room and across the street to his house.

 

She poured the story out to Miranda. She, too, was shocked and horrified at the idea of the Millers moving away, and immediately began to wonder just how bad the situation was.

“Dad said it was over a million dollars,” Julie sniffled. “That’s a lot, really a lot, I know. But maybe we can raise some money somehow. Maybe we could have a garage sale.”

“Or a car wash,” Noah added.

“I’m sorry sweeties,” Miranda said. “But car washes and garage sales don’t make half a million dollars.”

Noah ran and got his piggy bank, which was nothing more than an old pickle jar filled with nickles and quarters and a few dollar bills.

“Come on, Julie,” he said. “I’m going to give my money to your dad.”

As they crossed the street hand in hand, Miranda realized that financial security resided in the brains of the two children. She had known it, of course, ever since Noah picked Mr. McGraw’s winning lottery numbers, but she usually couldn’t think of it without bile rising in her throat. Its association with greed and death was indelibly imprinted upon her mind.

Now, however, everything was different.

This wouldn’t be money for gain. This wouldn’t be money used for despicable purposes by despicable people. This was a crisis situation—an opportunity to use Noah’s powers for something really important and good.

Still, she hesitated. Actions have consequences, that she knew well. A butterfly flapping its wings over Paris might cause a mudslide in Peru.

Or maybe this was fate. Their children weren’t part of the spectral order, they were subject to, and part of, all the machinations that created the ever-unfolding tapestry of life. They were woven into it, as much as she, John, and everyone else was. The only thing that made them different was an acute sensitivity to initial conditions. They didn’t know the future; perhaps they simply felt the present better than anyone around them. Better, but not perfectly.

And that wasn’t fate. She liked that idea. Despite his powers, Noah couldn’t possibly know everything. Things evolved and changed, and he wasn’t a supercomputer. He was just a little boy. He and Julie, they were children with gifts, and it was time to use them for something good.

She headed across the street to talk to John.

 

“Miranda, no.” John said. “This is unconscionable and I think you know that. We can’t use these children like that. It seems abusive somehow.”

“I know how you feel; believe me, I do,” Miranda said. “I wrestle with the ramifications too. I’m the one whose kid was kidnapped for this very thing, remember? But why the hell should they have these powers at all if it can’t be used for something good?

“Start toying with fate, and everything gets messy; really messy,” John said, pacing the floor. “If we are meant to move to California we shouldn’t try to change that.”

“Because you’re broke? Maybe Julie and Noah found each other so that they can help you stay; what are the chances they wound up across the street from each other? I can’t believe these things are accidents.”

“Everything we do affects something else,” John said. “The kids need to understand they can’t be using their…their…”

“It’s OK to say ‘powers’,” Miranda interrupted. “That’s what they are.”

“Powers, then. Powers. They can’t use them to get out of any jam that comes along. They need to have a normal life.”

“They’ll never have a normal life,” Miranda said. “And there’s a reason for that, I believe.”

“Chance, fate, destiny,” John sat on the couch wearily. “That’s what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? What’s the point?”

“I was a philosophy major. Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed. I loved the whole free will vs. fate thing. I think neither one is right. Fate is only a suggestion – a strong suggestion at times – but what’s the harm in trying? Maybe it won’t work. I don’t think it’s wrong to try.”

“It’s wrong because it will get the kids’ hopes up. If it doesn’t work, it will destroy them.”

“They’re already destroyed by the thought of you leaving,” Miranda insisted. “I don’t think it can get any worse.”

“Maybe you’re right,” John said. He sat for a long time, and the room was silent. “Let me think about it a little more, Miranda. I need to think about it.”

 

John thought. He grappled with the issues of right and wrong and ethics and principle. And he still could not fight his way out of the quagmire of gray he found himself in.

“I don’t know what to do,” he told Miranda. “I wish I had some powers to tell me if this is a good idea, but I don’t. I think Julie got her gift straight from her mother.”

“None of us can know what will happen,” Miranda said. “Ultimately, whatever you believe fate is, it still wins, doesn’t it? It’s not like we can outsmart it.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

They gathered Noah and Julie and asked them, taking turns, what numbers they felt were due to fall that Wednesday as the Oklahoma lottery was run. The jackpot was up to $1,420,000, and it would be enough—plenty—to get the Millers out of the hole. Julie and Noah thought carefully, faces somber, and gave their guesses.

They were correct, of course. John deposited the money into his bank account, stunned. Miranda and Noah steadfastly refused to take a penny of it, no matter how hard he insisted that part of it was theirs.

The Tulsa World ran a story on John, recounting the details of his wife’s death and the terrible state of health care in the U.S. that left him with such debt. He told the tale of how his daughter and her best friend had picked the winning numbers but her friend, a little boy named Noah Griffith, gave up his portion to keep them from moving away. It was a special piece, a heartwarming human interest story that had the newscasters dabbing at their eyes.

Mr. McGraw, watching it from his prison cell, teared up more than once.

Noah Knows, Chapters 7-10

Read from the beginning of part one here

And from the beginning of part two here

Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapters 7-10

 

Chapter Seven

~Seven~
The summer would be officially over in one week. Julie and Noah would attend the same elementary school, just two blocks away, and Julie questioned him relentlessly. They both felt the usual quivers of anxiety and excitement at the prospect of school, but this year was more anticipated than most because they had one another. Noah felt happier and more thrilled than he could ever remember.

The afternoon was hot and sticky and they played the cloud game until there were thunderheads overhead–the first in two months–and the county held its collective breath and prayed they would crack open and pour rain. Sitting on the swing set in Julie’s back yard, Noah swung as high as he could and tried to answer Julie’s inquiries.

“Are the kids nice?” Sure.

“Do you have to do PE?” Yes.

“Do you play a lot of dodgeball?” Unfortunately, yes.

“Are there bullies?” A few.

“What’s the playground like?” The usual.

Julie swung and tried to think of more questions.

“Will you still be my friend at school?”

“What?”

“Will you still be my friend–you know–even though I’m a girl?”

“Don’t be silly. Of course I will. You’re the only friend I’ve got.”

An enormous clap of thunder made them jump, and they came to a scudding halt on the swings, viewing the clouds with anticipation. A moment later fat raindrops began pelting the dry ground, soaking Noah and Julie in seconds. Shrieking, they crouched low and ran for the back porch. Jenny stepped out and handed them two old beach towels.

They sat in the breakfast nook, sampling Jenny’s peanut butter cookies and watching the rain pour down. Noah did not think he could feel more content than he did at that moment, with the smell of baking all around him and the sound of water sheeting off the roof. Jenny was really nice, he thought. And beautiful, too, just like Mama.

 

When school began, Noah and Julie were not seated next to each other but it didn’t really matter. They communicated throughout the air above the heads of their classmates and were often struck with fits of giggles simultaneously, to the perplexity of their teacher. The other kids teased them for being friends and sang round after round of the kissing song until Julie’s face turned red and she kicked them in the shins.

They sat together at lunch and played together at recess. They walked home after school and discussed the day’s events. If they had homework they usually wound up at Julie’s house, sitting with their heads bent over their papers, working silently. Numbers made absolutely no sense to Julie and she often relied on Noah to explain the lesson to her.

“I don’t get word problems at all,” she said one day. “If I take something away, I still have it. I just took it.”

“Taking away means you don’t have it anymore,” he said. “They really mean somebody else took it away.”

“If that’s what they mean, why don’t they just say it,” she stated with a frown, looking at the fingers she held up to keep track of what she was doing.

Noah never counted on his fingers or had to stack numbers on top of each other to add and subtract. He never showed his work; he just put the answer down, a habit his teacher found suspect until she quizzed him after school one day. She was amazed at his abilities, telling Miranda that he was a prodigy. He was now doing high school algebra, studying alone at a carrel while his classmates ground through multiplication tables. He found it almost as easy as addition and subtraction.

“You’re so lucky,” Julie sighed. “I wish I had that power.”

“But you’re good at other stuff,” he said. “You’re the best artist in the whole school. And you’re really good at reading. I’m not so good at that.”

Julie was a voracious reader. She was currently on the forth book of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and like to read it out loud to Noah. Noah saw reading as a necessary evil, but he enjoyed hearing Julie’s voice and often requested a chapter after they were done with their homework. They would go outside to the swing set and she would read about talking animals and far away worlds as he swung himself higher and higher, the images floating through his mind like the clouds he tried to touch with his sneakers. He especially liked hearing about Aslan, the lion that ruled Narnia, and thought that if there was a God, maybe he was a little bit like that.

He had lots of questions he’d like to ask Aslan, even though Aslan never really answered questions. Still, hearing the story always made him a little less anxious about the things that didn’t make any sense.

 

~Eight~

Other than occasional homework, everything at school was enjoyable. Art class was messy and delightful, science was enlightening and exciting, and field trips broke the monotony. The only cloud that darkened the bright sky of learning was Gary.

Gary was a hormonal mess of a fifth grader, with a pouty, doughy face and the slightest wisp of facial hair, which he took inordinate pride in. He presented a looming hazard to the younger students at school. He was a genius at nothing except harassing those smaller than himself, and turned even recess into a stressful and ominous affair.

Like most bullies, he was subtly menacing, with no overt gestures of violence. His methods were covert: small digs in the ribs, whispered threats, stolen treats at lunchtime, and sudden pinches that left deep bruises.

He also chose a particular victim to receive the brunt of his abuse; in this case it was a third grader by the name of Danny. Danny was little, smaller even than most of the second graders, and had a high, piping voice that reminded Noah of the tiny flitting wrens that gathered at Mama’s bird feeder in the winter. As soon as he appeared at school, midway through the second month, Noah knew he was doomed.

On the playground, Gary’s eyes lit upon Danny at the monkey bars and he moved towards him like a bird of prey circling and preparing to strike. As Danny reached for the first bar, Gary swatted his hand and sent Danny sprawling onto the gravel. He stepped onto his back to reach the bar, and swung across, laughing loudly. Danny clambered to his feet, wiping the back of his hand across his bleeding lip.

Not a single teacher had seen it. Noah and Julie, sitting on the swings, watched with trepidation and disgust.

“We have to help,” Julie said.

Gary loomed over Danny and whispered something in his ear that drained the boy’s face of color and brought tears to his eyes. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans, took out a small wad of money and handed it to Gary.

He snatched it gleefully and put it in his own pocket, giving Danny a hard pinch on the arm for good measure.

It went on like this for a week. Danny had his lunch money taken every day, and his arm was littered with bruises. The rest of the children tried to ignore it, their feelings of guilt eclipsed by the relief that Gary’s focus was on someone else.

Danny was a pariah, as no one wanted to be associated with the boy who garnered so much unwanted attention. Tormented and friendless, he sat alone at lunch and stared sadly at his food. He was even put on the same bus as Gary, a twist of fate Noah found particularly wrenching.

“Maybe we should tell the teachers,” Noah said.

“Are you kidding?” Julie asked. Gary will kill us for ratting on him.”

Noah definitely didn’t want that. The image of Gary’s over-developed body leaping out at them on their way home from school made his stomach lurch. No. If they did something, it had to be better than a futile appeal to the authorities.

“If we can make the black cloud go away, surely we can do something about Gary,” Julie said. “If only he knew what it was like to be bullied. I wish we could bully him.”

“Let’s make him bully himself,” Noah said, excitement in his eyes.

“What do you mean?”

“Concentrate,” he said, and nodded in Gary’s direction.

The bully had Danny by the arm. He curled his fingers into a fist and shook them in his face, lips moving with threats only the small boy could hear.

Together, Noah and Julie focused on one word. Punch.

Suddenly, Gary’s fist flew backwards at the most ridiculous angle, connecting solidly with his own nose. He slapped his hand over his face and started to cry. Blood streamed down his lip and he bawled louder, bringing the playground monitor to his side.

She pried his hand from his face and placed a tissue over his nose.

“He punched me!” Gary wailed, pointing at Danny. The teacher looked dubiously at Danny, and then back at Gary before marching him towards the school building and the nurse’s office.

Silence so thick that even the birds stopped singing followed in their wake, and everyone turned to stare at the waif of a boy standing beneath the monkey bars. A single handclap broke the hush. More and more joined in until there was a cacophony of applause bouncing off the nearby buildings and echoing across the playground.

A smile spread slowly across Danny’s face, and he bowed theatrically. Several other boys ran up to him and shook his hand, inviting him to join their game of foursquare. He nodded happily and took his place on the court.

Noah and Julie giggled behind their hands and high fived each other.

 

~Nine~

Noah was Superman. He could stop bullets with his eyeballs, and he could make time go backwards. Mama said he was her Superman even without the costume, and took lots of pictures before he left for school with Julie. Noah practiced flying as he waited for her in the front yard.

Julie was a fairy. She had wings and a wand that lit up and sparkled. Noah said she was pretty and she hit him with her wand.

“Don’t say that. The kids at school will sing the kissing song again.”

Miranda took their picture together.

“You guys have lots of fun today, OK? Bring me some candy.”

They started down the street, waving to both mothers as they went. Miranda called to Jenny from across the street.

“Aren’t they cute?”

“Sure are! Want to come in for a cup of coffee?”

“Wish I could, Jenny. I have to get to work, though. Rain check?”

“Sure thing.”

 

The party was fun, but Noah felt a little sick as they walked home. The Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, and cupcakes churned in his stomach and he felt a growing sense of doom. He needed to throw up, he just knew it. Julie told him they were almost there, just one more corner.

As they rounded the curve, flashing lights brought them up short. Noah suddenly couldn’t feel his stomach at all. In front of Julie’s house was an ambulance. Mr. Miller’s car was in the driveway but partly on the grass. The door hung open. Noah felt the blood drain from his face.

Frozen on the sidewalk in mid-step, Julie stared at the scene.

“No,” she said in a small voice.

Then she ran. Noah was behind her, but he didn’t want to go into her house, didn’t want to see what he knew was there, didn’t want to see Mrs. Miller sprawled on the kitchen floor, didn’t want to see her peaceful, beautiful face, pale and still and framed by a halo of dark curls.

He ran to his house, threw up in the toilet, and crawled under his bed.

He heard Grandma coming up the stairs, calling for him. He couldn’t move; he was frozen in his Superman suit, Kryptonite had found him and he was completely undone. Tears squeezed from under his eyelids but the images would not leave his mind. He saw the dead tabby, stretched out beneath Grandma’s azaleas. He saw flies covering the cat. He saw flies covering…

“No!” he yelled, scrubbing his eyes with his fists.

Grandma came into the room and he knew she could see his legs sticking out from beneath the bed. She sat down on the floor.

“Please come out, Noah. Julie’s mom—“

“–Don’t say it,” Noah begged, and scrambled from under the bed. “Don’t say it, Grandma.” He pulled the comforter from his bed and wrapped himself tightly, burrowing until his head was deep beneath the layers.

Grandma tried to unwrap him a little but he clenched the comforter tighter. “I won’t say it, honey, I won’t say it.” She was crying, too, and pleading. “Take the blanket off, Noah. Please don’t wrap it so tight. I promise I won’t say anything else. Your mama is on her way home to be with you.”

Noah released his grip and Grandma left, wiping the tears that dripped from her eyes. He remained cocooned in the comforter, but still the images came.

Mr. Miller on his knees, weeping and rocking and beating the floor with his palm; his head on his wife’s chest, begging her to come back to him.

The paramedics standing by, arms holding equipment that only worked on the sick and hurt, not the dead and gone.

The Miller’s son, Jeremy, who came home early from work and found his mother, sitting on the couch with his head in his hands as tears fell to the carpet.

Julie, just standing. That was the worst image of all. Just standing and staring with her dark eyes full of storms again, eyes with no light at all anymore, eyes that looked without seeing.

 

The memorial service was painful but brief, and it lingered like the sharp stab of a needle that throbs for days afterwards. John spoke. He spoke clearly and extensively of Jenny’s vibrancy, her love for life and family and friends.

He held the urn containing her ashes and spoke of her love for the sea and his intention to return her to her beloved Pacific. He didn’t choke up once, but his eyes were small with sorrow and his shoulders bowed low. Safely back in the pew, he put his head down and wept silently, tears dripping off the tip of his nose.

Julie was a robot, rising and sitting as required, lifeless and blank. Noah watched her anxiously.

He tried to reach her but she had closed herself off to him completely, and he didn’t push. He remembered how it felt before he met her, and the loneliness echoed through him again. He pressed close to Mama, and felt comforted by her arm around him, but it wasn’t the same.

The service ended and everyone was invited to the meeting hall to share their favorite memories of Jenny and have some refreshments. Noah and Miranda joined the long line of well-wishers offering condolences to John and the children in the sanctuary.

Noah was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the family’s pain as they drew closer; it hit him with a tangible force, washing over him in a dark wave.

He felt Mr. Miller’s heart; its shattered pieces numb and trampled. He did not want to be there at all, Noah realized. He wanted to leave, to run far away and never come back, or to curl up in bed and never get out. Instead, he stood with his children and shook hands, allowed himself to be hugged, over and over, and offered words of encouragement to the endless stream of weeping friends and family.

It was a strange reversal of roles that Noah found disturbing. Why should Mr. Miller have to tell people it would be all right? He needed to hear it most, after all. He looked fragile, as though at any moment he might crack down the middle and fall into pieces on the sanctuary floor, but he continued.

The pressure was almost unbearable, and Noah felt faint in the light of Mr. Miller’s courage. He and Mama reached the family and Noah shook all the hands but Julie’s, as she was curled up on the pew, eyes closed, arms wrapped around her knees. No one made her get up, and Noah was grateful for that. Mama hugged Mr. Miller’s neck and said how sorry she was.

He nodded but Noah wasn’t sure he heard her at all, and they went on to the hall, where a microphone was set up and people were milling about, putting bread and cheese and crackers and cookies into their mouths without tasting any of it.

An old high school friend took the microphone and reminisced about Jenny. More contributors came, and more, until it seemed like everyone had something to add. There was some laughter, and many tears. Photos of Jenny were clustered on a memorial table, and a slideshow with more favorite pictures flashed by on the wall. Noah could hardly look at them. He asked Mama if they could leave. She took one look at his pale face and said yes.

Mama made him some hot tea and he sat at the kitchen table with a blanket around his shoulders. She took his temperature but it was normal. He was tired, ineffably weary, and he asked if he could go to bed. Mama picked him up and he didn’t protest that he was too big to be carried like a baby. She walked heavily up the stairs and tucked him in, lying next to him with her arm under his head. He snuggled close to her body and sighed.

“It’s going to be OK, Noah,” she said softly. “Maybe not anytime soon, but eventually. Julie will come back to you. Just give her time.”

He nodded.

“Do you want to talk about anything?”

He wanted to talk about everything, but he couldn’t. Not yet. He shook his head. She stroked his hair and hummed until they both drifted off to sleep.

 

~Ten~

Miranda made seven dozen chocolate chip cookies and took them across the street to John and his family. Noah went with her. It had been two weeks since the memorial service. John made the trip with his children to the California coast, where they had chartered a boat and scattered Jenny’s ashes as dolphins frolicked beside them.

Miranda didn’t know if anyone would eat the cookies, but she couldn’t go empty-handed. Now that she was offering sympathy, she found herself doing all the things she said she’d never do. Taking food was one. Saying she knew how someone felt was another. Yet she found herself saying it to John, and mentally kicked herself.

“I don’t mean I know exactly how you feel,” she hastily corrected herself as she stood in his kitchen. “Nobody can feel what you’re feeling right now. I lost some people I really loved too. I know how alone you feel. Come over anytime if you feel like you need to talk.”

John nodded and seemed appreciative of both the cookies and the offer.

“I wish I could bring a big, nourishing pot of chicken soup or something,” Miranda sighed. “Do you need anything? Anything that isn’t food related?”

“I wish Noah here would go talk to Julie,” he said. “She doesn’t want to talk, and I’m really worried about her. The other kids go to counseling but Julie refuses to say a word. She just sits there.”

“I’ll see if she’ll talk to me,” Noah said softly, and went to Julie’s room. She was sitting on her bed with her homework on her lap, tears tracing silent paths down both cheeks and dripping onto her lined notebook paper.

“Hey,” Noah said from the doorway. She looked up and stared at him, as though making up her mind about something.

“Hey,” she said at last. Noah felt relieved. He sat on the end of the bed.

“Are you working on math?” he asked. She nodded and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand.

“I don’t understand this at all,” she said angrily, slapping the paper. “I read it and read it and it still doesn’t make sense. I’m so stupid.”

“You’re not stupid, Julie. You’re one of the smartest people I know.”

He slid next to her and explained the process of borrowing in a way she seemed to immediately understand. She nodded, sniffed loudly, and wiped her nose on her sleeve. She worked out another problem, and looked at him with her eyebrows raised. He nodded and smiled.

Julie went back to work, her face dark but less closed. Noah felt elated, if just a little, and hope bloomed anew. Maybe Julie would be his friend again. Maybe Mama was right. He just had to be patient.

Suddenly, her head jerked up and she frowned at him.

“I don’t know if we can be friends anymore, Noah.”

The good feelings evaporated as quickly as they had stolen in.

“Why?” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Because you remind me that we failed. Every time I look at you I remember how happy I was and it makes all the sadness even worse.”

She sprang from the bed, suddenly furious, and paced the floor.

“The fog came back; it came back and we couldn’t stop it. It came and took her anyway, and it’s not fair, and I hate it, I hate it so much—“

She sank to the floor, crying so hard she couldn’t speak anymore, and Noah wished he could speak the right words and make everything different. Death was everywhere, he knew it was, and there was nothing they could do to stop it; they had thought they were powerful but they weren’t, not really, they were just kids and kids can’t do anything about big things like death. Death did whatever it wanted.

“I’m sorry, Julie,” he said, though he knew it wasn’t enough.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she sobbed. “You’re wrong. We are powerful. We are, Noah. We made it disappear, but it knew when to come back.”

“I guess so,” he said, sitting down next to her. “Or, maybe it didn’t; maybe it was just a thing that was supposed to happen and that’s why we couldn’t stop it. Just like Mike dying. Maybe it just had to happen.”

“Who’s Mike?”

“Mike was my mom’s boyfriend. They rescued me when Joanie and Mr. McGraw kidnapped me. He died. I liked him a lot.”

“The bad thing?” Julie whispered.

“Yeah. The bad thing.”

Julie became quiet, and leaned against Noah. He put his arm around her.

Please still be my friend, he thought. I miss you.

There was nothing for a moment and he began to despair.

How can I ignore you? she thought back, finally. You, with your big loud thoughts?

Then, she turned to him and smiled; barely, but it was a smile.

 

Miranda opened the door to find John standing on her stoop, fingering the buttons on his vest. He opened his mouth to speak, seemed to think better of it and shut it again.

She opened the door wider and he stepped across the threshold and stopped in the hallway, rubbing the back of his neck and looking at her with red, weary eyes. She motioned for him to take a seat on the couch and offered him a cup of coffee.

“Whiskey, if you have any,” he said softly.

“I definitely have whiskey,” she said.

She pulled the liquor from above the refrigerator, grabbed two tumblers, and took a seat across from him in the overstuffed recliner. She poured them both a drink and set one on the coffee table in front of him, the bottle next to it.

He took a swallow, then swirled the amber liquid in its glass. The air was almost unbearably still. Miranda waited, knowing there were many things that could not be rushed. Grief was one of them.

“I should have called before I came over. But you said anytime, so I decided you meant that.”

She insisted she had.

“You said you have some experience with loss, Miranda, and I surely need to talk to someone. Someone who understands. Do you mind if I ask you what happened?”

She drained her glass and poured some more, wondering how to begin. As concisely as she could, she told of Dean, and Hugh, and the circumstances of Noah’s birth. She told him of Noah’s abduction and Mike’s murder and John gave a low whistle, shaking his head and staring at her.

“And I thought I had a sad story.”

“You do,” she said. “Nobody will feel it the same as you. That’s why grief is so isolating. But yeah. Pain. I’ve had some. It helps to know you’re not alone.”

“I don’t know how to go on,” he said. “How do I do my job–take care of my kids, and remember the bills–through this horror? I just want to lay down, Miranda. I want to lay down and sleep until I can wake up next to her somewhere. Heaven, or whatever. I don’t want to be here anymore, not without her. I don’t even care that my kids need me. I don’t want to be needed. I only want her back.”

He put his head in his hands and cried great, heaving sobs. Miranda sat next to him, put her arm around his shoulders and felt tears of her own spilling over in empathetic sorrow. She handed him a box of tissues and he blew his nose loudly and wiped his eyes, breathing a long, shuddering sigh.

“I think I’ve been holding that in for weeks.”

“I remember how horrible it was, having to be strong in front of everybody.” Miranda said. “You need a friend to cry on. Someone you don’t feel self-conscious with.”

“I don’t feel self-conscious with you,” he said. “Is that you, or the whiskey?”

“I hope it’s me.” She smiled. “I hope you feel comfortable here. You’re always welcome.”

“It hurts so much more than I thought.” John said. “I was ready for her to die. I’m so grateful for the extra months we had with her. But thinking she was back, and then losing her anyway; it doesn’t make any sense. How can that happen?” He put his head in his hands again.

“You can never prepare for it,” Miranda said, softly. “I really thought it would kill me. I wished it would. But I had Noah, and he helped me.”

“The kids–they need me, I know. I feel like I have to be everything to them now.”

“Believe me, you don’t,” Miranda said. “Don’t buy that lie. They need to see you grieve. You need to show them it’s OK to be destroyed by it. It’s not weak; it’s the greatest kind of strength.”

“I don’t want them to worry about me. I want them to concentrate on their own healing.”

Miranda shook her head. “You guys have to heal together. You’re a family; you need to wade in there, get all messy with it, and let it knit you together. Otherwise, it will tear you apart. Noah and I cried a lot together. We also went through extensive counseling.”

John balled up the wet tissues and threw them into the trash can. “I’m not sure I’ll be good at that.”

“Just be patient,” she said. “Be real. And when that’s hard, there’s always whiskey.”

The corners of his mouth twitched upward, just a little.

“There will always be whiskey.”

He lifted his glass. “Here’s to…I don’t know. To not being strong.”

“To not being strong,” she agreed, and they drank.

 

Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapters 4-6

Start here to read from the beginning…

 

Part Two

Chapter Four

 

Good Morning.

Noah jumped from his bed, pulled the curtains back, and gazed outside. Across the street, he saw Julie standing in her bedroom, framed by her window. She waved at him, grinning broadly.

Good morning, Julie, he answered, waving back. The early morning sunlight was just creeping over the rooflines, sending long shadows across the road.

They played this game every morning, seeing who could get up first and wake the other. Sometimes he won, but most of the time it was Julie who roused him. She was a morning person. It was 6:38 a.m., according to the clock by his bed.

Mama would not be up for another hour. He peeked into her darkened bedroom and heard the soft snore that meant she was sleeping soundly. Sometimes, he heard her in the middle of a nightmare, and he would climb onto the bed next to her, shaking her hard to wake her up. She always hugged him tightly and thanked him, but she never told him what the nightmares were about. He was glad about that.

He hopped down the stairs and opened the front door for Julie. She never knocked. She never had to; Noah always knew when she was there. They went to the kitchen, taking care to avoid the tile’s grouted seams. Between them, they had good reasons not to take chances.

He got the Honeycomb, she got the milk and two Tupperware bowls, and together they sat at the worn wooden breakfast table and ate in silence.

It wasn’t polite to talk with your mouth full, and even though they could speak without opening their mouths it still felt wrong and so they didn’t. When they were done Noah took their bowls to the sink and Julie put the box away.

They stepped out the back door from the kitchen and stood on the concrete parking area. The air was already thick with humidity but there was a sweet breeze ruffling their hair and they didn’t notice the heat. Noah retrieved a large bucket of broken sidewalk chalk from under the porch stoop and they set to work.

The chalk was dusty and cool in Noah’s hand and he was filled with contentment. He drew an alien with three heads and large, spreading claws, filling in the blank expanses with sweeping blue strokes. Julie drew a bird with wings outstretched over its nest. When they were done they sat back and examined their artwork.

“Yours is better,” Noah said. It was true. The bird was brilliant. Julie cast him a sly look and suddenly the birds wings began to flap up and down. He giggled, and made his monster’s claws open and shut. The two pictures moved across the concrete like oil floating on top of water. This gave them another hour’s worth of entertainment before the sun took its toll on their fun.

“Whew. It’s getting hot.” Julie wiped her bangs out of her eyes. “Let’s fill the swimming pool.”

Noah went inside to put on his suit, and crossed the street to where Julie was standing with the green garden hose, filling the small blue pool. Her sister came out the front door and got into her car, lifting the mirror on the visor to apply a vibrant shade of lipstick. Noah thought she was very pretty in her yellow sundress, and told her so.

“Well, aren’t you sweet!” she exclaimed. “Thank you! I have to work today, isn’t that sad?” She pouted with her bright mouth as she closed the door and pulled away. Noah didn’t think she seemed very sad about it at all.

“She’s not sad,” Julie said. “She has a crush on one of the grocery boys; she’s really in love with him. She’s happy she gets to work. Plus then she doesn’t have to be around here. Nobody wants to be around here but me and Dad.” She frowned a little.

“I’m sorry, Julie.” Noah took her free hand in his and held it. He knew that sometimes there wasn’t anything else to say. She looked at him for a moment, inscrutable and dark, and then turned with one swift motion and soaked him with the hose.

For the next few hours they had more riotous fun in the 18 inches of water than should have been humanly possible, even playing a raucous—and admittedly short—game of Marco Polo. Finally, exhausted and pruney, they lay side by side in the warm water and discussed what to do with the hours that were left in the day.

“Let’s go to my Grandma and Grandpa’s house.” Noah suggested. “I know the way; I could show you Moxie. She’s my Grandma’s dog. You’d like her.”

Julie agreed that this was an excellent scheme, and went to get permission. Noah ran to his house, found Mama reading a book in the living room, and asked if they could go.

“By yourselves? Are you sure you even know the way?” Mama’s eyes were anxious. Noah rattled off the directions flawlessly, and she sat silently for a moment, deliberating.

There was an eagerness in Noah’s eyes that told her he wanted to show off his navigational abilities. She was nervous at the thought of them walking alone but she knew this was irrational; children smaller than Noah walked to school from their neighborhood. She still made the trip with him every day.

She had, in the years since Mike’s death, been told she had a well-deserved case of post-traumatic stress disorder which plagued her with bad dreams, but in waking life she felt she had gained some measure of freedom from it. Events in the past had wrecked some parts of her soul and she knew this was an opportunity to deny their hold on her.

She wanted to extend to Noah the grace that independence required. She didn’t want him to be bogged down by anything of her own that was too heavy for him to carry, and so she nodded in spite of the fear.

“Let me call Grandma and make sure she’s home.” She rose to get her phone from the bedroom and Noah was left alone with his thoughts. He knew Mama was afraid to let him go, and he was glad she said yes. Mama was brave. Really brave. Right now she was calling Grandma, and Grandma was saying that yes, she was home, and she would love to have them over for a while. She would make scones. Noah loved Grandma’s scones, especially when she put chocolate chips in them.

“Grandma says yes, you can come over,” Mama said. “She’s going to make you scones, you lucky dog.” She handed him a T-shirt and his flip flops.

“You won’t talk to any weirdos, right?” she asked as he pulled the shirt over his head. “You’ll wait for the light to show the little walking guy, right? Even if there’s not a car for a million miles. And call me when you get there?”

Julie joined him on the front porch and they walked all the way to the end of the block and turned. He saw Mama still standing there, and he waved.

“Bring me a scone!” she shouted.

He suddenly felt older, then, walking with Julie, and a small, protective wave surged up. Let’s just see any weirdos try to mess with us, he thought. Julie giggled.

“What?”

“You. Beating up the weirdos,” she said, punching the air. “What about me? I bet I could beat up more weirdos than you.”

“Yeah. You probably could.” He smiled. “We could beat up weirdos together. We could be a gang.”

“A really small gang.” She laughed.

Soon they were at Grandma’s door and she threw it open with exclamations of admiration that they made the trip alone. Noah submitted to kisses and Julie had her hand shaken with exaggerated solemnity by Grandpa. For the next two hours, Grandma peppered them with questions as they ate scones and played with her chiweenie, Moxie. Julie laid on the floor and giggled madly as the dog snuffled her ears.

“She’s a really great dog,” she said wistfully. “I miss our dog. He was really great too. Dad just thought things were too stressful to keep him, and I guess he was right. But I really wish we could have brought him.”

“I’m sorry, honey. Maybe someday you’ll have another great dog.”

“I hope so. I’d like to have a German Shepherd. I really like those.”

“A German Shepherd would eat you in one bite, wouldn’t it, Moxie? Wouldn’t it, huh? Huh? Huh?” Noah laughed as Moxie got more and more excited as he spoke, bending almost in half as she wiggled for him.

“I guess we better head back now,” Noah said. “Mama sounded really happy when I called but she’ll feel better when I get back.”

“You’re such a wise boy, Noah,” Grandpa said with a wink. “Sometimes you seem much older than nine.”

After more hugs and kisses they left, Noah swinging a bag with scones inside for Mama. Julie had her own bag, too.

“I never had a scone before,’ she said. “They sure were good.”

“Look at the kitty,” Noah said, pointing across the street. A small tabby trotted along the gutter. It looked up as Noah made kissing noises through his teeth, skittering away as they neared.

“It’s afraid of us,” Julie said, and held out her arm for him to stop, hunkering down to make herself less threatening and calling kittykittykitty in a soft voice.

The cat stopped and turned to look at her. It slowly slunk closer, pausing before darting halfway across the road.

An enormous blue Dodge truck with a pair of metal testicles dangling from the back hitch squealed around the corner and came hurtling down the road.

Slow down, slow down, slow down, Noah thought.

“Slow down!” he screamed over the roar of the engine, hopping up and down frantically, hoping to alert the driver. The engine sputtered and died, but roared back to life almost as quickly, and the truck lurched forward again. The cat darted backwards and then abruptly changed direction, finally crouching immobile on the concrete, where the right front tire hit it with a sickening thud.

Horrified, Noah and Julie watched the truck fly heedlessly by and disappear over a hill. They stood, gazing at the small, still form in the gutter on the other side of the road.

Julie cried, springing forward with Noah close behind her. Breathlessly, they leaned over the crumpled form. It gasped brokenly; blood bubbled from its nostrils as its eyes rolled white in its head.

“The poor, poor thing,” Julie said. She was near tears and reached out for Noah’s hand, squeezing it tightly. He felt as though the creature had entered his own head and made its fear and pain his own; he saw himself and Julie bent over it, figures enormous and threatening in its panicked state.

“Stupid truck!” Julie screamed in the direction it had gone. “Stupid driver! Stupid…asshole!”

“We’re scaring it,” Noah said. “Maybe we should leave it alone.”

“Leave it alone?” she cried. “Noah, we have to do something.”

“It’s gonna die, Julie. Look, it’s dying right now.”

The cat shuddered violently with each breath, its eyes clamped shut, its front paws paddling in the air as though trying to get away. Noah saw a dark mist settling on it, cold and familiar, and reflexively he waved his hand at it, trying to brush it away. Julie stared at him.

“You see it too?” she whispered.

Tears were pouring down her face as she reached out and gently touched the creature. Noah felt the cat’s fear ebb a little. He stroked its fur, sorrow welling up inside of him.

The black, vaporous cloud agitated briefly and rose off the animal, swirling in the air before them. They moved their hands away and it settled once more onto the cat’s broken body. They stared at one another and together put their hands on it again. Again, the cloud rose and swirled, seeming to coagulate and dissipate by turns.

Beneath their hands the animal wheezed and coughed. Its eyes opened and it looked at them. The back legs, which had been limp and unmoving, began to twitch.

“Noah…” Julie said, so soft he hardly heard her.

“Close your eyes,” he said. “Close your eyes, Julie, and think about it. Think about it all better.”

They shut their eyes, hands still stroking the matted fur, and thought hard. Julie’s thoughts joined Noah’s and they saw the cat running, leaping, pouncing on bugs in the yard, and lounging in the sun. They thought live and breathe and please don’t die. They felt movement beneath their palms and opened their eyes, not daring to believe what might be happening.

The cat rolled once, and sat up, rubbing its head on their hands, moving back and forth as though nothing had happened, meowing and lashing its tail before sitting down to calmly lick its rumpled fur. The two children gazed at each other, mouths hanging open.

The black mist was gone.

 

~Five~

 

“Please, Noah. Please. We’ve got to try. You’ve got to help me!”

Noah suddenly felt as though he was moving even though he was sitting still. He closed his eyes and felt the movement of the earth as it hurtled through space, felt time as it carried him along, and all his cells growing older in his body.

He felt Julie’s desperation and the burden of her request bearing down upon him like the Dodge bore down upon the cat just a few days before.

He didn’t want to help. He didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to go into the room of death and try to dispel the black cloud that hung so thickly over Julie’s mama. It wasn’t that he didn’t think it would work. It was because he knew it would.

“Noah, please…” Her eyes were dripping and her face was growing hard and angry. He knew things she couldn’t understand; that there were things they shouldn’t mess with, things that were better left alone. And if it worked for Julie’s mama, what would it mean for his own, who grieved for something that maybe he could have fixed if only he had known?

But I was just so little then, he told himself, feeling at least half a million years old. I didn’t know anything. Mama would understand that. Mama understands better than anybody.

“If you don’t help me, we can’t be friends anymore.”

Julie’s voice and face were very hard now, and he knew she was hearing all the wrong things in his mind. He was blocking her and it made his head hurt but he didn’t want her there, not right now, not in those places, not ever.

“I can’t do it alone. It doesn’t work without you. I already tried. I need you.”

“I’ll help you,” he said softly.

 

Hand in hand, they entered the dim living room where Jenny slept. Her grandma dozed in the La-Z-Boy next to the bed. The air was thick with the acrid smell of medication and bleach.

Noah’s eyes were wide open, pupils round and glassy in the darkness. He saw Jenny’s tousled hair on the pillow and her bony hand that lay on the blanket, crocheted in brown and blue hues that reminded him of the beach. He knew that it was made by Julie’s Great-Aunt Emily, who was 73 and who prayed every day for them; she didn’t just say it, she did it. He saw the stitches and knew there were 28,462 of them, every one counted and imbued with love, miles and miles of yarn woven into a tangible display of concern.

Mostly, however, he saw the black cloud.

It hung just over Julie’s mama, swirling and coiling like smoke, so thick he almost couldn’t see Julie’s sleeping grandmother on the other side of the bed. It was oppressive and malevolent and it waited, growing and gathering strength every day, until it could drop over Jenny and suck the last bit of breath from her body.

Noah realized he was holding his own breath, as though the black cloud might descend upon him instead and lift him from the floor, carry him into the sky and take him away forever.

Be brave, Noah, Julie said, speechlessly, in the stillness of the room.

He was brave. He was brave like Mama. Julie pulled him forward and they stood beside her mother’s head. She put her hand gently on the dying woman’s chest and leaned forward to kiss her hollow cheek. Jenny’s eyes fluttered open and she smiled when she saw them. Her green eyes were beautiful in the darkness and Noah felt a trembling in his chest when they fixed upon him.

“Hello,” she breathed. It was faint, imperceptible in any other room. The quiet was so dense it enveloped them.

“Hi, Mom,” Julie whispered. “This is my friend Noah. He wanted to meet you.”

Jenny closed her eyes again but the smile remained. “Nice to…meet you.”

Noah placed his free hand on Jenny’s left shoulder, shuddering at the skeletal feel of it beneath the sheet. Julie closed her eyes and Noah did, as well, stealing softly into her mind to see her memories.

A bright summer day, a picnic, and Peanut running around, barking his head off, chasing a Frisbee. Laughter. Jenny sitting on the blanket with John’s head in her lap, stroking his hair as she listened to Jane talk about school that week. Her hair is blond and her cheeks are glowing.

Christmas. Presents everywhere; wrapping paper littering the floor. Jenny in the kitchen, making Christmas dinner as she sips wine and sings loudly along with the carols playing on the stereo, stopping to kiss John and clink glasses and kiss again.

Julie’s birthday. Her mom placing a paper crown on her head, bedecked with streamers and glitter and a large number 5 in bright green. An enormous pink cake shaped like a castle with five turrets, Jenny taking a bow after bringing it out, explaining to her parents just how she made it, how long it took, but how worthwhile it was to make Julie happy.

Live, live, live, Julie said, chanting inside her head. Live, live, live!

Noah took up the mantra as well, and together their voices joined in his mind. He peeked from under his lids and saw the black vapor roiling like a thunderhead about to drop lightening upon the earth. He glanced at Julie and saw that she was watching, too, and she squeezed his hand so tight he thought she might break his fingers.

Live, live, live!

Noah’s head hurt and he wasn’t sure how long they had been standing there when Julie’s grandmother gave a sudden jerk in her chair and sat up with a grunt.

“What are you doing?” she whispered. “What do you need? You shouldn’t be in here; your mother is trying to rest. Did you need something?”

Julie said no, they didn’t need anything. She just wanted to see her mom, and let her meet Noah. Her grandmother softened.

“Your mom is asleep; do you want me to call you when she wakes up? Maybe you can talk to her then.”

Julie nodded and they left the house. They stepped through the front door and into the blinding sunlight.

Neither of them spoke. From all around them the sound of cicadas filled the air and the heat bore down on them. It seemed as though nothing had happened.

“Do you think it helped?” he asked softly.

“My mom is going to live,” Julie said simply. “I think we’ll have to do it more than once, though.”

Although Jenny hadn’t risen from the bed and stood fully fleshed before them, he felt certain that something had altered in Jenny’s chemistry as they stood there, hands linked, pouring their power into her. The black sea had boiled and although it had not vanished, it was scattered and less focused by the time they were done. They had scrambled its brains and left it confused. He felt elated and terrified at the same time.

“We’ll do it again tomorrow. I’ll tell you when,” Julie said.

They went back the next day, and the next, and six more times after that. The last time the mist seemed as inconsequential as the tendrils from a recently extinguished match. Soon, even they were gone.

 

~Six~

 

It was a miracle. Everyone, from doctors to the Miller’s mailman, said it must be.

Jenny—a shriveled husk in the final stages of terminal brain cancer—recovered.

It was August, and the drought-prone Oklahoma summer sucked the life out of everything. The Bermuda grass lawns were shriveled and brown, and the trees went into early dormancy, shedding their leaves prematurely to conserve what little energy they had left.

The air pressed heavy all around and filled everyone’s lungs with its thick, suffocating weight. Nothing seemed to thrive, and people moved at half-speed.

Inside the Miller household, however, life abounded.

The hospital bed was gone. The morphine pump was carried out amidst a cacophony of cheers. Home health care aides with smiles big as canoes removed the detritus of the death process and wished Jenny well as they left.

She stood in the living room, pale but radiant, surrounded by people there for a party to celebrate her recovery. Her children hung close to her like satellites orbiting the sun, and her health was toasted again and again by relatives and friends.

Julie stood at her side, arms around her mother’s waist. Noah hung back with Mama, who was thoroughly delighted. The team of oncologists who told her to get her affairs in order less than a year earlier were there, delighted to have been proven wrong.

And then there was John.

He was almost radiant. He stood beside his wife, hand in hers, and could not stop looking at her, drinking her in from head to toe. He beamed. He kissed her forehead, her lips, her cheek, her palm.

When she first looked better he told himself it was a trick of the light. When the faintest blush of color appeared on her cheeks he wept at his vain imagination.

But the day she opened her eyes and told him she was hungry, he had a hard time stamping down the hope that welled up. Watching her drink an entire milkshake, he asked himself if it could be true; was he witnessing a recovery?

The morphine pump chugged less often. The flesh returned to her body. And when he wheeled her into the oncology center for MRIs, they had both walked out with impossible ringing in their ears.

No tumors remained. There was no trace of cancerous cells.

John wondered if he would wake up from this most pleasant dream. The valley of the shadow of death was too deep a place to be forgotten so quickly, and he wondered if they were treading on the edge of a vast canyon, into which the slightest wind might cause them to tumble. He could not know the future.

He didn’t want to know. But while he was here on the precipice, he danced. Oh, how he danced. He cartwheeled and jigged in the very depths of his heart.

For Julie, victory was complete. She and Noah had dispelled the demons and scattered the specter. Her mother belonged to her again; she was available to help and play and scold and teach, and nothing was sweeter to her ears than the voice that asked her if she wanted waffles or pancakes for breakfast.

Julie had a new haircut, too; Jenny took one look at the choppy boy cut John had attempted and took her straight to the salon to shape it into a pixie.

Noah was stunned by the transformation. She stood, hugging Jenny’s arm and smiling, all the dark storms in her eyes replaced by clear white light.

Noah was happy, too. He felt he had done a good thing, a wonderful thing, an amazing thing, but–not necessarily the right thing. What did that matter in the end? He wasn’t even sure what right meant anymore.

What could be wrong about this, after all? All this joy, all this celebration that he and Julie were responsible for. Still, he was uneasy. He hadn’t told Julie just a week earlier he found the tabby’s corpse in his grandparent’s bushes, stiff and cold, its spirit long gone. He knew what it meant, but he pushed it down hard and refused to look it full in the face.

He smiled, but his heart was full of questions.

Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapters 1-3

~One~

The moving truck had a picture of a boat on it, which Noah thought was weird. He knew the Pilgrims came to America in a ship called the Mayflower, but he also knew it took them a long time to get here. Why would a moving truck want to be like the Mayflower? Mama laughed when he asked her, but he really wasn’t kidding.

The stuff going into the house across the street was all regular house stuff like couches and chairs and tables, but Noah stood at the window anyway, watching the burly men heft boxes and furniture up to their shoulders like they hardly weighed anything at all.

Mama saw several twin sized beds going in and wondered aloud if there was a child moving in, maybe his age, and wouldn’t that be nice? He nodded. He didn’t have friends at school, and he knew this worried Mama.

Mama worked at the post office now. They moved across town after Mike died and tried to start over. They had lived in their fourplex for four years now. He liked the sound of those numbers: a fourplex for four years. And he was nine now. Five and four made nine. He liked thinking about numbers. He still saw numbers on people and wondered what they meant. He told Mama and she didn’t know either, but she told him not to talk about it.

He still saw things that other people couldn’t see. It didn’t usually bother him, but it worried Mama, so he stopped talking about it. Sometimes he saw numbers, so he thought about them a lot. At school he was good at math. He was so good that he was bored during math class, a lot. The other kids didn’t understand how numbers worked, but he did. It was easy. He just saw them in his head, how they fit together.

He shifted his weight to the other foot and watched the biggest man bringing in a box with “wardrobe” on the side. The man was wearing a tank top and his muscles bulged. Noah looked down at his own skinny arm and flexed. Nothing much changed. He sighed. Now there were two men struggling with a refrigerator. They had a thing with wheels to help them. Mama said it was called a dolly, which made no sense to him at all.

Several bicycles were brought out and leaned against a tree. Noah stood up taller then, craning his neck to see more.

“Mama, can I go outside and watch?”

“Just stay on the steps, OK?”

He skipped to the door, using the tiles on the floor like hopscotch squares. Swinging it open, the warm June air blew his hair out of his eyes and the bright sunlight made him squint. One of the moving men saw him and waved. He waved back and sat on the last wooden steps, leaning forward as far as he could to see better. He could hear voices but nothing distinct over the crashing footsteps of the men inside the van.

Just then a little girl appeared at the front door of the other house, a waifish, dark-headed girl with hair cut short and choppy. Her dark eyes swept the landscape and caught sight of Noah on his step. She stared at him and he cringed slightly, getting the distinct feeling that if she wanted, she could look right through him all the way to his bones.

Mama told him it wasn’t polite to stare, but she was doing it so unabashedly, with such focused attention, that he felt free to return the look. He stared back.

He could tell lots of things about her, right away. They were written all over her face, barely below the surface like the brightly colored fish in the koi pond outside the Chinese restaurant. She was nine, he knew. And she was lonely, like he was, even though she had three brothers and one sister. She was hoping for a friend but she didn’t think she’d make any. Her mother was dying of cancer. And she was…

Get out.

The words fell into his mind like pennies into a jar, abrupt and jangling. He jumped a little and looked around but didn’t see anyone; there was no one else here but himself and the little girl and the moving men, who were walking back and forth, carrying things. They certainly hadn’t said anything to him. He stared at her. She walked slowly down the stairs of her house, looked both ways at the curb, and crossed the street to stand on the sidewalk in front of him.

“Don’t do that,” she said crossly, stormy eyes flashing.

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t get in my head that way. I could feel you there, just messing around. It’s not polite and you should know that. Didn’t your mama tell you?”

His mouth fell open slightly and he stared.

“I’m sorry,” he said, finally. It seemed like the right thing to say.

“I forgive you,” she said gruffly, sitting down next to him.

“My name is–”

“Noah. Yeah, I know.”

“How did you know?”

“Saw it on you, just there.” She pointed vaguely at his forehead. He wiped his hand across his brow absently. “It’s gone now.”

“What’s your name?”

“Can’t you see it?” She seemed surprised. “It’s Julie.”

“OK, then,” he said lamely.

She sighed and looked out at the men carrying box after box into her new house.

“I never met anybody like me before,” she said, gazing at him with her dark penetrating eyes. “You can see stuff, can’t you? Stuff that other people can’t see?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes. I see numbers on people.”

“Numbers? That’s weird. Do I have numbers?”

“I thought it was rude,” he said.

“Not when somebody asks, silly. It’s like being invited into somebody’s house. You can’t just barge in, you have to wait. So what do you see?”

“No numbers,” he said slowly, studying the area around her hairline. “I don’t know why. You just don’t have any.”

“What does that mean?” she asked, perplexed.

“I dunno.” He shrugged. “I also saw that you’re worried about making friends and your daddy works for the newspaper and you have three brothers and one sister and your mama is dying. I’m sorry about that.”

“That’s OK. I mean, it’s not OK, but thanks. She’s been sick for a long time.” She sighed. “She can’t play anything with me anymore, not even board games. Daddy always tells me to let her rest.”

“I don’t have a daddy,” he said.

“I knew you didn’t. What’s the bad thing that happened? Did someone you know get killed?”

“Is that on my face, too?”

“No. That’s deeper. But you barged in, so I thought I could, too. I won’t do it again if you don’t want me to.”

“Does it make your head hurt?”

“What?”

“The not barging in. Mama says it’s like closing the door. Not pushing to find stuff out. But it makes my head hurt if I close the door too hard. It’s easier to just leave it open a little bit. Then some things still come in, but not the really deep stuff.”

“Yeah, it’s like that. So what was the bad thing?”

“A crazy guy and his girlfriend kidnapped me. He wanted me to help him get rich,” Noah said. “People died.”

“Oh, wow,” Julie said. She sat silently for a moment, then continued. “You don’t have to tell me any more if you don’t want to.”

“Thanks. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“OK. I won’t barge in.”

It was the strangest thing that had ever happened to him, sitting with someone who could see inside him, but promised not to. He felt warm and happy. He hadn’t even realized that other people like himself existed, and here was one just his age who was going to live across the street.

Why shouldn’t there be other people like me? he thought suddenly. Maybe people with special powers had a way to find each other. Maybe his and Julie’s powers had called out to one another, arranging things so they would meet. Even terrible, sad things like getting kidnapped and people dying might be used to make good things happen in the end.

“I hope that’s true,” Julie said.

He protested that she should not be reading his mind; didn’t she say it wasn’t polite?

“I know it’s not polite,” she said, placidly. “But your thoughts are so loud, Noah. It’s like you’re yelling them at me. Maybe you should practice thinking more quietly.”

He had never considered that his thoughts might be loud. It gave him an idea.

“Let’s see how many things we can hear from each other. Look at me and think something.”

She did. A man swam before his eyes, rather small and untidy, sporting a vest and a full, trimmed beard.

“Some guy with a beard and a vest. He looks nice,” he said.

“That’s my dad.” She smiled. “He is. Now you try.”

He concentrated and thought about Mama.

“Your mom, I think,” she said. “That was too easy. Think about something else.”

It was remarkably hard to think about anything at all once you were commanded to, but after a pause he thought about a piece of bread slathered with peanut butter.

“Peanut butter and bread,” she said, smiling. “This is so cool.”

“Go down the street a little bit. Hide behind that tree,” he said, pointing. “Then think something else.”

She trotted down the street to the corner, where a large sycamore spread its branches.

“Can you see me?” she yelled.

“No! Go ahead!”

Almost instantly the image of a schnauzer chasing a ball came to mind.

Julie ran back to the step.

“A dog?” Noah asked. She nodded her head and looked mournful.

“His name was Peanut. We had to give him away when we moved.”

Miranda stepped into the sunshine, and smiled broadly. She introduced herself to Julie and tousled Noah’s thick, curly hair.

“I was going to see if Noah wanted something to eat,” she said. “How about if I bring a blanket out and you guys have a picnic in the grass? Does that sound like fun?”

Soon, they were sitting behind the fourplex on a strip of grass that qualified as a lawn. They snacked on peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate chip cookies. It seemed to Noah that there was nothing better than homemade chocolate chip cookies and a new friend. He stretched out on the blanket and looked up at the bright blue sky, dotted with puffy bits of white. Julie swept the crumbs away and lay down next to him, head touching his.

“Wanna play a game?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Pick a cloud…”

For the next hour he taught her the finer points of meteorological manipulation. Julie was delighted. Noah found that, together, they could make bigger pictures than ever, with clouds much larger than he could move alone. She was a natural artist; the bright white shapes took on a realism he had never achieved on his own, and they created images as quickly as the brisk, atmospheric wind stretched and blew them apart.

After putting the finishing touches on an enormous elephant, they were quiet for a while, feeling both exhausted and energized by their efforts.

“I like you, Noah,” Julie said. “We’re friends, right?”

“Of course.”

“Good. I didn’t want to move. But I didn’t know you were waiting here. I’m glad you were waiting.”

“Me, too.”

~Two~

 

Her daddy was named John, and her mother was Jenny. Her brothers and sister were Jeremy, Jane, Joseph, and Jacob, in that order. Julie was youngest.

Her mother was dying of brain cancer; Julie said when she looked at her she sometimes saw a thick black fog around her head. She knew cancer was just cells, just a bunch of cells gone all crazy, but she couldn’t help thinking about it as an evil thing, a crawling monster that had sniffed out a warm spot, curled up and made itself at home in her mother’s brain.

Julie’s mama had not always been sick. Julie carried her baby book across the street to show Noah pictures of her in her mother’s arms and her mother was smiling and radiant, glowing with happiness and life. Even then, though, the monster was circling, sniffing, and finding its way inside. When Julie was just a year old it had decided to make itself at home, and the chronic headaches began.

At first her mama fought hard and it seemed like the monster was defeated. After chemotherapy, Julie remembered playing tag outside with her, and going for walks with her and Peanut. Suddenly, though, the headaches returned and they found out the monster never really left, just hidden for a while so it could dig its claws in good and hard for the final battle.

It didn’t make any sense to Noah, a monster that lived inside you but killed you in the end. Where would it go then? Wouldn’t it also die? Julie said there were lots of people with cancer in the world, millions, and maybe all the cancers were connected. When it killed one person, that cancer floated away and joined with another one to make it stronger. This gave Noah nightmares.

Her family uprooted itself to be near her mother’s parents, so they could be with her as much as possible. Julie’s grandparents lived one block over, a kindly couple that Noah received his favorite candy bars from every Halloween since he and Mama moved to the fourplex.

The grandparents came over every day and took care of their daughter and Julie while John was at work as the city editor at the Tulsa World. Julie’s brothers and sister all got summer jobs after they moved in, to help out with the bills, but Julie said they got jobs so that they wouldn’t have to be around their mother so much. They were too sad and scared to stay in the house all day.

Julie was too young for a job, but she came over to Noah’s almost every day because she, too, was sad and scared and didn’t want to be around the dense black fog and the sharp-clawed beast in her mother’s head. Lucy, who watched Noah every day while Mama was at work, was glad he had a friend.

“Grandma and Grandpa don’t really like having me at home anyway,” Julie told Noah one day as they sat under the spreading elm tree in Noah’s yard and blew dandelions at one another. “Mom just sleeps mostly, but they sit and watch her and change her bedpan and clean her and stuff. It’s not like there’s that much to do, but I don’t want to bother them. I’m glad I can come over here.”

Noah went inside Julie’s house just once, to get a game from her closet, and he never, ever wanted to go back. The smell of urine and sweat mixed with the sensations of fear and pain and sorrow nearly suffocated him. His distinct impression was that there was a malevolent force crouching above the prone figure on the bed in the living room, and it was terrifying.

He managed to reply to the few, polite questions from her grandparents as he stood in the foyer, trying to breathe, but as soon as Julie appeared with the game he almost bolted out the door.

“Do you get used to it?” he asked Julie. She looked at him like he had grown a second head.

“Of course not,” she said. “Sometimes I want to throw things and smash them all over the floor and scream at the cancer to go away, but I know it won’t change anything. It’s not really a monster, and if I scream it will just upset everybody and maybe give Grandma and Grandpa a heart attack. Mom is going to die, maybe even this summer, and there’s nothing that’s going to change that.

Noah knew this was true. No matter what you did, sometimes death just came.

He picked another dandelion and studied it. There were 231 seeds on it. He didn’t have to count; the number just came to him as he turned it between his fingers. He picked another. 184. He blew them both, sending all 415 seeds cascading on the wind. All those seeds might burrow down into the ground and start new dandelion plants, each one with seed heads of its own. Millions of dandelions might come from the single breath he just released. The thought pleased him. Grown-ups might not like dandelions, but he did.

He handed a particularly full seed head to Julie. “This one has 312 seeds on it.”

She took it and gave him a curious look. Inhaling deeply, she blew every single seed from its stanchion and sent them spinning.

“Now there will be more dandelions, all because of us.” He smiled. “Death and monsters can’t stop that. No matter what, there will always be dandelions.”

 

~Three~

 

“Do you think it’s healthy, this friendship?” Lucy asked Miranda one day after she got home from work.

“Mom, why would you even ask that?” Miranda exclaimed. “They love each other. Look at them, thick as thieves out there under the elm tree. What are they doing, making mud pies?”

“They asked for all your pans. I didn’t think you’d mind, since you never use them.”

Miranda rolled her eyes. “I think they’re great for each other. Don’t you like Julie?”

“Certainly. She’s an odd little thing, though. Seems so much older than nine.”

“She has four older siblings. Also, her mother is dying. I think she has a right to be a little odd.”

“Noah has asked me countless questions about cancer. I wish he didn’t have to think about that kind of thing. He’s had enough, you know? A little boy shouldn’t have so much experience with death.”

Miranda sighed heavily and dropped her purse and the mail on the dining room table. “Not sure I needed the experience, either.”

Lucy drew Miranda into a hug and held her for a moment. “I’m so glad I get to see you every day, have I told you that lately?”

“Only a couple thousand times.”

Lucy pointed out the window. “Look at them. They hardly even talk; is that odd? They’re so quiet when they play.”

Miranda looked. Sure enough, neither Noah nor Julie’s lips were moving. Most nine year olds would be babbling nonstop, especially girls, but they worked in silence. She watched as they emptied dirt into the pans and added water from a plastic pitcher, stirring and patting it into the right consistency.

Suddenly they both looked at each other and burst out laughing. Miranda smiled.

“What’s so funny?” Lucy asked. “Did I miss the joke?”

“I guess we both did,” Miranda replied, heading to her room. “Don’t worry about them, Mom. I’m pretty sure it’s the odd things in life that make it worth living.”

Her mother left. Miranda shut the door to her room, stripped off her jeans and pulled on a pair of gray yoga pants. She unhooked her bra and replaced her blouse with a faded blue tank top. She let down the bun from her hair, shaking it out loosely around her shoulders with a sigh of relief. So much better.

She walked out her room, went down the stairs, turned the corner to the living room and came to a halt at the sight of Noah and Julie, arms covered in mud up to the elbows. There was a man with them.

“Mama, this is Julie’s daddy. His name is Mr. Miller. He wanted to meet you.”

The man put his hand out and shook Miranda’s vigorously, apologizing all the while. “I was standing on the porch and about to knock when Noah came around the corner and pulled me in. Didn’t mean to take you by surprise this way. Just wanted to introduce myself and say how happy I am that Julie here has such a good friend. I should have come by sooner; it’s a little stressful at my house but that’s no excuse.”

“I’m so glad you came over,” Miranda said, thinking he was as talkative as his daughter was silent. “I’ve been meaning to come over myself.”

“I should have knocked,” he said, rubbing his beard nervously.

“It wasn’t like you were interrupting anything.” She laughed.

“Well, good. I’m so glad to meet you Ms…”

“Call me Miranda, please.”

“Miranda. Lovely, Miranda.” He winced a bit. “Lovely to meet you, I mean. I’m Mr. Miller. I mean, John. You can call me John.” He smoothed his vest and straightened his glasses.

“If you guys need anything at all, just holler,” Miranda said. “I’m an absolute disaster in the kitchen but I do know my way around a bag of chocolate chips. Do you guys like chocolate chip cookies? I’ve been meaning to whip you up a batch. Maybe I’ll get to it this weekend.”

“Who doesn’t like chocolate chip cookies?” he asked, smiling. “But there are so many of us, Ms…Miranda, I mean…please don’t feel obligated.”

This is the most nervous man I’ve ever met, Miranda thought.

“I’d love to do it,” she said.

“We wanted to have a nice big family. Might have had more if Jenny…“ He trailed off, awkwardly, picking at some nonexistent lint on his shirt sleeve. Miranda’s heart ached for him but she couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say.

“Anyway, just let me know if you need anything,” she said again. John nodded and backed towards the door, steering Julie with one hand on her shoulder. They said their goodbyes and Noah clicked the door shut.

Miranda gathered bits of dried mud from the floor and ordered Noah to the sink. She wondered if there was anything she could say to comfort John; if there was some way she could be a friend.

They could share their loss and grief, perhaps. But my son is psychic and got kidnapped, and the kidnappers killed my boyfriend wasn’t quite the same as my wife is dying of cancer. Where was the common thread? Her story was too bizarre. Or, maybe it was enough. For now, chocolate chip cookies would have to suffice. Sometimes, chocolate was the best comfort anyway.

 

John Miller walked across the street holding Julie’s mud-encrusted hand; unspoken words in his head and no small amount of desire in his heart. He’d just met a wildly beautiful, vivacious woman, standing and breathing and full of color. He’d almost forgotten what that looked like. Not that it was anyone’s fault. No one’s fault but death and disease.

He looked down at Julie and smiled, releasing his guilt. He was not one to dwell on self-incrimination, not after all he had been through. Miranda was a beautiful woman, that much was true.

He loved his wife and would remain faithful in his heart and in his mind, as much as was humanly possible.

Til death do you part the vows read, and til death do us part he said, and he meant it. He never thought death would come so swiftly, however, nor so early, to his fresh-faced, exuberant bride of just twenty years.

Stepping into the dim foyer, he greeted his mother and father in law with hugs and kisses, as he did every day, and asked the same questions.

How is she? About the same as yesterday.

Hospice? Came and changed her sheets. Washed her hair.

Did she eat? Pudding. Some soup. Said her mouth hurt too much to do more. Tempted her with a milkshake and she drank a few slurps.

Did she say anything? Asked about the kids. Said she loved you. Told us she loved us. That’s about all.

He thanked them and hugged them again and said goodbye as they left, reluctantly, promising to come again tomorrow in case he needed anything.

He threw the Tulsa World onto the dining room table and wandered into the kitchen. His mother in law left, as usual, a sandwich, made with fresh chicken breast and sliced tomatoes and plenty of romaine, which he usually loved. Tonight, however, he wasn’t feeling it, and opted for a bowl of cereal.

He took his cereal into the living room where Jenny lay curled beneath the sheets, a meager bump in a sea of cotton. The last time she managed to step on the scale she weighed 82 pounds, a breath of flesh for a woman five feet six inches tall, and that was many months ago. She had shrunk since then. John guessed she weighed no more than Julie, 70 pounds or so.

He bent to gently kiss her forehead, she opened her luminous green eyes, and smiled faintly at him. Brushing her still-damp hair from her brow, he marveled, as he often did, that the curls that framed her face were so lush. After the chemo made every fine blonde wisp fall out, her hair grew back wild and curly and dark as a raven’s wing, a contrast to her pale skin that still took his breath away.

Now it was the only thriving part of her, as though every ounce of energy she had left was working away beneath the surface of her scalp, churning out the coiled strands that lay in a tumble on her pillow.

“How are you?” he whispered.

“O.K.” It was an exhale of two syllables. She closed her eyes again.

“Pain anywhere?” he asked. The morphine pump chugged away at her bedside, button at the ready for her to push. Palliative care was a bitch but he would not tolerate his wife’s pain if he could ease it. Sometimes she was too weak to even reach the button.

“No,” she breathed again. “Kids?”

“At work. Julie came home with me. Wish you could meet her little friend; he’s a really neat kid. They play together like peas in a pod. Today they were making mud pies. I sent her to wash her hands. You want her to come?”

She smiled and shook her head, a tiny motion he might have missed had he not attuned himself to her constricted movements.

“I’m so glad she has a friend.”

“Are you cold?”

Again the nearly imperceptible nod. He grabbed the blanket that shifted downward to her feet and brought it gently to her shoulders. One sock had fallen off and he retrieved it, coaxing it over her bony foot, grieving for the soft, rounded thing it used to be. The sock was fluffy and yellow, printed with smiley faces, and it hung on her ankle rather scornfully, he thought, and he made a mental note to find better fitting, less disdainful socks in the future. He tucked the blanket around her feet.

“Better?”

Small nod. He took his bowl of cereal and ate a few bites but found that his appetite had left him. In the dim evening light Jenny’s face was even more gaunt than ever, and he realized they were no longer in monthly-watch mode but daily. Soon it would be hourly.

He pushed the thought away. Now was what mattered, this moment right here, while he still had her. He took her tiny hand in both of his and tried to warm it, putting his head down to lay his cheek on the wizened palm where the flesh was thin and wrinkled and the blue veins ran back and forth with their meager cargo. He closed his eyes and began to hum one of her favorite songs, an old Bing Crosby tune about swinging on a star that she used to sing to the kids in their diaper days.

He felt the sudden small weight of her other hand on his head, softly caressing his hair, and his heart constricted as the tears spilled onto the hospital-issue mattress and dampened the sheet. His shoulders trembled with silent sobs as he remembered the feel of her embrace and the joy of it in the days when love was easy and ecstasy ran freely through their everyday lives.

Too soon, the hand fell away and he lifted his face to see her chest rising and falling. heavily.

“I love you, my sweet Jenny,” he said, kissing her cheeks and lips.

She breathed hard, eyes brimming with tears.

John wiped his face hard with the corner of the sheet and took a deep breath, forcing the tears to stop. “There’s nothing to worry about. Don’t be afraid.”

She nodded and closed her eyes as the tears slipped from beneath her lids. Her chest rose and fell spasmodically.

Dammit. He chastised himself. Go and upset her, you idiot. Make her use up all that energy. You’ve gotta be strong for her, John. Just be fucking strong.

He kissed her again and wiped the tears from her face.

“Do you want the ocean?” he asked.

She nodded. Turning to the mp3 player beside the bed, he flipped through the menu, found her favorite ocean sounds and hit the repeat button. The room filled with the echoes of distant waves crashing onto the shore, accompanied by the occasional cry of a gull.

Jenny loved the ocean. They had left California to come home to her parents for the final stage of her losing battle, but he knew part of her mind would always be standing ankle deep in the Pacific surf where the salty air brought her so much joy.

A Mother to Multiples

So, at some point, the game of odds just doesn’t matter anymore.

The game that says, hey! Ten out of thirteen, man, that’s great odds!

The game that says hey! Be happy with the majority! Be happy that the majority outweighs the minority!

But this is not a game. This is not a bargaining chip. This is not a race, in which the second, and third, and fourth winner win a prize, a ribbon to rival the first’s. This is real life.

This is real life.

Where nobody cares that one small victory might add up to several large ones in the broad scheme of things. Where it doesn’t matter that someone got a job when they are twenty-something because most people get jobs at 18-something…or 16-something…

Where no one gives a shit that it cost many a late-night conversation just to get a loved one to the place where they could even see their way clear to apply for a job stocking shelves, or less, because the depression and the overwhelming anxiety precluded it up to that point.

This is real life, where every life counts, and every soul that you think is dispensable winds up belonging to someone that you love.

So think twice before you think that the odds are in somebody’s favor.

We aren’t thinking in terms of odds. We are thinking in terms of souls. Every single soul that means something infinite to us, the mothers and fathers of those statistics. We can never be happier than our saddest child, in the grand scheme of things, in the great ultimatum that is dished out to everyone, no matter how arbitrary.

All my children matter to me. All of them. Not one of them matters more than the others. That is the truth. No matter how odd it seems. It is the final word.

No matter how many children you have, the least of them will hold the highest place in your heart. That’s just the way of it. The most troubled lingers in the psyche as the most in need of compassion and care. So how can we do any less? We lavish the love where it is most longed-for.  And hope for the best.

Always.

 

Noah Knows, chapters 20 & 21

Catch up here!

Chapters 20 & 21

~Twenty~

Noah was trying to be brave, but it was getting harder and harder. His feet were tingling and falling asleep, dangling off the end of the chair. His arms were numb and his wrists burned from the chafing of the rope. He was afraid of the dolls and their staring eyes. He sat in the deafening silence of the house and listened to it pop and settle as the hours ticked past. He cried.

Mama, he thought. Mama, come and find me. Please. Help me, Mama. I miss you.

He studied every corner of the room and counted the roses on the wall (682). He tried not to look at the dolls.

With a growing sense of dread he realized he had to go to the bathroom. He hadn’t seen Mr. McGraw or Joanie in hours. Joanie told him to be a good boy and play nice. She cackled when she said it. Joanie reminded him of a lizard with poisonous spit he had seen once on a nature program. When the lizard bit something it didn’t have to kill it right away, it just had to wait until it died from the poisonous spit, slowly and painfully.

He was bored and scared and he tried screaming as loud as he could, screaming and screaming for help like he knew he should, but when the echoes of his screams died away in the house he heard no sounds of rescue from people outside. He wiggled in his chair but when he almost tipped it over, he stopped in fright. He did not want to fall over tied to a chair.

He had to go to the bathroom worse and worse.

He thought maybe he could make the rope snap, just think hard enough and he could get free, but Mama had said not to let anyone know about his powers; she had made him promise, and if he got free of the ropes what would he do then? What if they came back before he could get help? What if they figured out he had more powers?

He knew that if Joanie and Mr. McGraw found out he had more powers than just numbers and horse names, he would be in more trouble than he already was. He was terrified of Joanie’s lizard face, and he had visions of her cutting him into little pieces to figure out how to use his powers for herself.

Exhausted, he slept, slumped over in the hard kitchen chair, head dangling to the side, drool dampening his T-shirt. He slept, exhausted beyond enduring, wishing and hoping for rescue that didn’t come. He slept, and he dreamt, and he tried to find Mama in his head, tried to reach her in that in-between place that only sleep touches.

 

Edward McGraw was nervous. He was nervous, but he smiled. It was important, and Joanie had lectured him fiercely. It was absolutely essential that he put on the performance of a lifetime, so he smiled innocently and wrinkled his brow in concern when the cops showed up.

He did a really good job, he thought, looking back. The detective had swallowed every bit of their story. They were crazy about each other and had spent the entire weekend at her house, they said, celebrating their love. Joanie was great, too.

That woman sure could lie like a rug, he thought admiringly. She made sorrowful, whimpering noises when the cop told them about Noah. So sad! So unfortunate! I hope you catch the bastards that took him. He had added to her sentiments, as best he could. The cop nodded and agreed.

He reviewed their performances, somewhat amazed at how well he did. His desk chair creaked in alarm as he tilted back and put his hands behind his head. They wouldn’t find a single thing in their apartments. Joanie said they should take Noah somewhere else. Like his parents’ house on the opposite side of town. They’d never look that far because he was squeaky clean, and Joanie too. Not even a parking ticket on their records.

They made her apartment look lived in over the weekend. Dirty dishes in the sink; a bed unmade, recently rented DVDs from RedBox. They thought this one through, for sure. That Joanie was a smart one. Soon, they’d both be rich as Midas and they’d get out of this hideous office and run away together. Live in a high-rise in Atlantic City. Somewhere exciting, where they could spend their money on fine steak and diamonds.

The only real question was what to do with Noah when they were finished with him. He pursed his lips. They couldn’t just let him go, could they?

Best not to worry about that for now. Joanie knew what to do. It had been so easy, so flawless, the way she had grabbed Noah off the street. Nobody had seen it, she said. Nobody had a clue.

She was like a ghost. A ghost with an ass that just wouldn’t quit. He smiled and lapsed into a daydream.

As if on cue, Joanie walked in and shut the door behind her.

He stretched out his arms but she looked decidedly un-amorous and he became alarmed. She had a temper that frightened him.

“Dammit, Eddie,” she hissed. “You’ve got to be working, you hear me? Working, like nothing happened. If we just sit here, people will get suspicious. You’ve got to work and act like there’s nothing going on in your miserable little life.”

“I was just daydreaming a little bit,” he said, mollified. “About you and me, if you know what I mean.” He tried to pull her to him but she stepped out of reach.

“Get busy,” she said and stalked out, leaving him completely deflated.

Later, they closed up the office and drove to her apartment, just in case anyone was watching. They watched a mindless television program and had extremely creative sex before moving quietly through the darkened parking lot to an Oldsmobile on the opposite side of the complex. The car also belonged to Eddie’s deceased parents and was still registered in their names. They drove twenty minutes across Tulsa to a nondescript suburb and parked in front of a small red brick ranch house.

“I’m about to bust open,” Eddie chortled, rubbing his palms together. Joanie insisted he wait for the race results. His enthusiasm was a dangerous thing.

Entering the house, he went straight to the monitor and flipped it on. From the adjacent room they could hear a muffled crying.

“Can you check on Noah?” he asked Joanie as he brought up the online racing results.

“I will not,” she said coldly. “You go see what’s wrong with the brat. He likes you better; you’re not the one who nabbed him.”

Mr. McGraw scrolled down the page. The results were there, and he stared at them, and then at Joanie, with his mouth open. Joanie turned livid and stalked into the bedroom.

Noah sat, tied to the chair, pale faced. The crack of Joanie’s hand across his face sounded like a gunshot in the small room. He almost tipped sideways in the chair from the force of it, eyes wide with shock and fear. Straightening up again, he began to cry in earnest.

“You filthy brat!” she spat. “What’s your game, huh? You trying to play us, you little creep? Didn’t you tell him, Eddie, what would happen if he tried to screw us over?”

“Easy, Joanie,” Mr. McGraw said, lumbering in behind her. “Maybe he was just confused. Maybe it was the chloroform, huh? Maybe?”

“Maybe,” she said grudgingly, staring at Noah with narrowed eyes. She leaned towards him and shook her fist in his face as he cringed. “Listen, kid. We just lost a hundred dollars because of you. Next time it won’t be a slap you get, you hear? Next time you get my fist in your face.”

Noah was terrified. Joanie’s face hovered before him like a snake about to strike. His cheek burned and a great red handprint had already begun to rise from his pale skin.

“What is that fucking smell?” she said. She backed away from Noah with a look of disgust. “He shit himself! Seriously, he’s like an animal!”

“I tried to hold it,” Noah sobbed. “I tried to hold it but I couldn’t. I need to go potty!”

“Joanie, what did we expect?” Mr. McGraw said, sounding a little panicked. “He’s only a kid. We left him here all day.”

“Take the fucking animal to the bathroom and get him cleaned up,” she said, gritting her teeth. “And when you’re done, get him to give you some names again. The right names. I’m going to order a pizza.”

Noah shivered from exhaustion and pain. Showered clumsily and wrapped in a towel, Mr. McGraw sat him on a clean chair in the kitchen where he and Joanie could keep an eye on him as they sat at the computer desk.

The kitchen was mostly olive green with peeling linoleum and Formica countertops, a time capsule from the 1940s. A shotgun leaned against the wall by the front door. Noah’s wrists were bleeding and he cried out in pain as Mr. McGraw wrapped them in some ancient gauze he found in his parents’ medicine cabinet.

“Shut up you little brat,” Joanie muttered as she shoved a piece of pizza into her mouth. Seeing him follow her every movement, she grinned wickedly. “You like pizza? Huh? Wish you could have some, do you?” She waved it under his nose and his lip trembled. His heart was beating a strange and unnatural rhythm and his head felt too heavy for his neck. His stomach had stopped growling hours ago but now it began again in earnest, churning.

“Stop it, Joanie,” Mr. McGraw said, with as much force as he could. “You make him too weak, what good is that gonna do? He’ll be too weak to pick any of the right horses, huh?”

Joanie shrugged and turned away.

“He better start picking the right horses before I pick his teeth out of my fist,” she muttered.

“You want some pizza, Noah?” Mr. McGraw asked. “Here you go.”

Noah wolfed down the slice and gulped a glass of water. He felt faint with relief, and slumped in the chair with his eyes closed.

“We’re going to try again, Noah, OK?” Mr. McGraw forced a pained smile. “Your first try didn’t work out, little man. You picked the horse that was dead last. I think that was just a mistake. I don’t think you did it on purpose like Joanie thinks. You don’t want to upset Joanie, right? We’re going to take a little more time and pick more carefully.”

Noah did not want to upset Joanie. He wouldn’t make himself feel better by talking ugly to her in his head anymore. He wondered if she could hear what he was saying in his head and that was why she was so mean. He was afraid, truly and deeply afraid, and every time he glanced at the shotgun by the door he felt sick.

Mr. McGraw brought the print-outs from the computer, sat beside Noah, and read the names of the horses. Slowly and carefully he made his way through the list, enunciating the names as though Noah were a foreigner asking for directions. Noah closed his eyes and concentrated, trying harder to see the winner and not just the excitement of the race.

This time, he had to be right.

 

~Twenty-One~

The police did a cursory walk-through of Mr. McGraw and Joanie’s apartments and found nothing. There was nothing odd in either place, unless you counted the stacks of Anime porn on the top shelf of Mr. McGraw’s closet, and their alibis were solid.

“How can their alibis be solid?” Miranda argued with Detective Dunhy. “Their alibis are each other. How does that make sense?”

“Two of Joanie’s neighbors saw them enter her apartment Sunday,” the detective explained. “No one saw them leave. It’s as solid an alibi as you can get. I’m sorry, Miranda, but we can’t keep questioning these two or follow them around. It’s harrassment. Unless something else turns up, I’m afraid this trail is cold.”

Miranda thanked him robotically, and hung up feeling weary and defeated. She felt as if her entire soul had dried up, leaving only a desiccated husk.

“What are we going to do, Mike?” she asked, head in hands. “Are we supposed to just wait until they make a wrong move? What if they do and we miss it? What if they skip town, or skip the country?”

Mike gazed at Miranda, who in less than three days’ time had grown pinched and sick with panic and suspicion. He dared not express that his ever-strengthening fear was that she was wrong; that Noah had not been grabbed by a couple of lunatic co-workers with designs on his “gift”, but that he had simply been nabbed by a run-of-the-mill sicko who had already used him up and dumped him in a landfill. He couldn’t tell her this was what the detective thought, too, that this was where the cops’ energies were now focused: on the ditches and culverts in the countryside, and the garbage bins and alleyways of the city.

“What do you want to do, Miranda?”

“I want to follow them. Wherever Noah is, they have to go to him at some point. I want to follow them. If the police won’t, I will.”

“And what if they see you?”

“They won’t see me. I’ll be careful. And I know them. They won’t notice.”

“If you’re right, and they’ve got him somewhere,” Mike said. “Then they’re a lot smarter than you’re giving them credit for.”

“I’m not giving them credit for anything,” she said angrily. “I am going to follow those two pricks tonight, with or without you.”

“You’re not going anywhere without me,” he said, sighing heavily. “Just promise you won’t do anything rash. That you’ll wait for the police if we do find anything. You promise?”

Miranda promised, a promise as thin as a whisper and less than half as reliable.

 

At 5pm sharp the tag agency sign flipped to closed and Mr. McGraw and Joanie left together through the back door. Miranda slid down in the passenger seat of Mike’s Ford truck, angry at the sight of them walking so casually, laughing together, Joanie playfully punching the expanse of Mr. McGraw’s left arm. They climbed into separate cars but as Mike followed at some distance, Miranda saw that they were both headed in the same direction.

“They’re going to her place, I bet,” she said. “You’re getting too far away.”

Mike accelerated. In ten minutes they pulled in to the Paladin Apartment complex, where he parked across from Joanie’s car in a spot marked Reserved for 202. Releasing her seat belt, Miranda slid into the back seat and peeked out the rear window to watch Joanie walk up the stairs to her apartment in the warm evening light. Mr. McGraw was not far behind.

“Well they don’t have him there, that much we know,” Mike said.

“All we know is he wasn’t there when the cops looked.” Miranda said.

Mike had to admit it felt good to be doing something—anything—rather than sitting around and waiting for news. Maybe Miranda was right. Maybe they could bring Noah home. His nerves were standing on end with renewed hope and no small bit of excitement.

“How do we see through the windows?” he asked. “They’re on the second floor.”

“He’s not here.” Miranda said. “The bedroom they’re keeping him in was done up like an old person’s house. Creepy porcelain dolls and stuff. I don’t think Joanie is a doll collector.”

More than two hours later, as the sky darkened from blue to black, Mr. McGraw and Joanie emerged from the apartment. Instead of heading for one of their cars, however, they disappeared around the corner of the building.

“Shit,” Miranda said. She scrambled back into the passenger’s seat and Mike started the engine.

“Hang on,” Mike said. “There are only two exits from this place.” He gestured towards the entrance they just came through and one a little further down, across a bank of holly bushes.

She nodded and he eased the car out of the spot, waiting. Headlights hit her square in the side of the head as an Oldsmobile came around the corner and she gasped, turning and throwing her hand up to her head as if fixing her hair.

“Was that them?” she asked and turned to Mike, wide-eyed. “Do you think they saw me?”

He shook his head, hit the gas, and turned as the Olds did, heading east.

“If that’s them, why did they change cars?” she asked, excitedly. “Why would they change cars unless they were trying to hide something?”

“I don’t know why they would change cars,” Mike said. “It does seem weird.”

He was now just as excited as Miranda, and almost as sure that she was on to something.

The Olds maneuvered onto the highway and he fixed his eyes on its rear bumper, almost losing it at one point when an enormous red pickup got between them. The Olds took an exit, and with a series of hair-raising lane-changes, they hit the off ramp, as well.

“Dear god,” Miranda said, breathlessly. “Are we alive?”

“They’re turning into that subdivision,” Mike said. “We must be close.”

They followed the Oldsmobile to a dilapidated Victorian, where it pulled in. Mike passed it with as much nonchalance as he could, and parked around the corner. They crept around the back of the house and looked for a window low enough to see through. The first was covered by a heavy blanket, but the next had light shining through its blinds. Mike climbed quietly onto the air conditioning unit and slowly rose until his eyes were just above the sill. He drew a breath sharply inward. Miranda clapped a hand over her mouth.

“He’s there, isn’t he? He’s there! He’s there?” she whispered through her fingers, eyes wide. Mike looked down and nodded, leaping from the unit and taking out his phone. His hands were shaking. Miranda began to climb onto the compressor but he grabbed her arm.

“You promised, remember? Miranda, don’t do anything crazy.” She nodded and he released her.

“We’ve found Noah,” Mike said in a low voice into the phone, his voice grim. Miranda could hear Detective Dunhy’s terse voice on the other end as she hoisted herself onto the unit. Mike recited directions to the house and added, “Please hurry.”

Miranda peered through the window.

Rage welled up in her and her voice quaked with fury. “Look at him! They’ve got him tied up like an animal. He’s naked; what have they done to him, Mike? The mother fucking bastards…”

She leapt off the air conditioner, bolted around the house and was halfway to the door before Mike tackled her, dragging her to the grass in front of the porch.

“Wait, Miranda!” he panted, catching her flailing hands as he sat on her.

“Let me go, goddammit!” she yelled, struggling with him. He tightened his grip but she seemed to have twice as many hands as normal.

“The police are on their way. Wait for the police!”

“I will not wait,” she sobbed. Her elbow came up and made contact with his nose, stars of pain exploding before his eyes. His grip faltered and in that instant she was loose, knocking him over as she ran to the front door, pounding on it and screaming.

He scrambled up and pulled her away from the door just as it opened. They stared, as if in slow motion, down the barrel of Joanie’s shotgun.

“Well, well,” she said, a smile spreading across her sharp features. “Look who’s come to join the party.”

 

The knots were tight but they were hastily tied and Edward McGraw was neither sailor nor Boy Scout. What held a five year old boy was inadequate for a thirty-two year old man. Mike worked the rope as surreptitiously as possible, sweat dripping. He knew Miranda was doing the same, and he was afraid of what might happen if she got free before him.

“You assholes think you can stop us?” Joanie asked. “You think we’re going give up on the best thing that’s ever happened to us?”

“Noah is not something that happened to you,” Miranda said through gritted teeth. “He’s my son, you bitch.”

“Your boy is a gold mine,” Joanie said. “A freak, but a gold mine. He just won Eddie and me four thousand dollars, didn’t you, my sweet Noah?” she said, laughing coldly. “Good news for him, at least. I’m not sure I could have held my temper if he’d been wrong again, you know what I mean? I do have such a terrible temper.”

Miranda twisted in her chair, trying to see Noah around Mr. McGraw’s enormous bulk.

“You lay a hand on my child and I swear to god you will lose it,” she said with absolute calm, which was unnerving, even to her. “Mama’s here, Noah; we’re all going to go home together. Don’t be afraid.”

“OK, Mama.” His small voice sliced her heart to pieces.

Joanie brought the butt of the shotgun up and an explosion of pain rocketed through Miranda’s head. Mike shouted and Mr. McGraw moved to take the gun from Joanie’s hands. She pulled away from him, however, and kept her grip.

“Is that really necessary?” he asked, his voice cracking. He was sweating copiously and his face was pale. His eyes flickered from Miranda to Joanie and then to Mike.

“You’re a pussy, darling,” Joanie sneered. “I knew I was going to wind up doing all the dirty work here. Why don’t you go back to the computer and see which race the little brat can work for us next?”

Mr. McGraw sat at the computer and wiped his forehead with his shirt.

“Aw, poor man,” she said, planting herself on his lap. “You’re worried aren’t you? But there’s nothing to be worried about. Joanie’s going to take care of everything. Just like I always do. These two will be nothing but a memory very soon and we’ll be on our way to paradise. Just hold onto that thought.” She kissed him noisily Miranda and Mike looked at each other in disbelief.

“You two are crazy if you think you’re going to get away with this.” Miranda said

“I’ll tell you what’s crazy,” Joanie said, breaking off from Mr. McGraw, a long strand of saliva stretching between their lips. “You are, honey. For never taking advantage of the gold mine you had right there beneath your own eyes. And since you didn’t, we will.”

She shouldered the shotgun and pointed it to each of them in turn. “And if you think you’re taking him, you’ve got another think coming.”

The wail of a police siren rang in the distance. Joanie froze, waiting, then looked at Mr. McGraw, incredulous. He looked back at her, turning even whiter.

“Did you think we wouldn’t call the police?” Mike asked in a quiet voice. “They’re coming for you, make no mistake. You know you’re not getting out of this one.”

“What are we going to do, Joanie? What are we going to do?” Mr. McGraw’s voice was high with fear and his eyes filled with tears.

“I’ll tell you what we’re going to do, you moron,” she said. “You’re going to show me you’re a real man. Blow their brains out and we’ll get out of here with the kid. Do it! Do it now!” She thrust the gun at him and turned to untie Noah.

“A few years for kidnapping or the death penalty for murder?” Mike said in the same, soothing voice. “Think about it.”

Mr. McGraw stared at him and then at Miranda, and then at Joanie, barely comprehending the unfolding horror around him. He looked at the shotgun with his mouth hanging open, breathing heavily.

“Mr. McGraw, please,” Miranda begged. “You don’t want to do this, you don’t. You’re a good man, you are. You don’t want to do this.”

“I never wanted this to happen,” he said, sounding bewildered. The sirens grew louder.

“Give me that!” Joanie screeched, snatching the gun from Mr. McGraw. She looked at him with disgust. “What was I thinking? Take the kid. Get in the car!”

Sobbing, Mr. McGraw threw Noah over his shoulder and lumbered to the garage. Noah struggled, cried “Mama,” his arms outstretched as he vanished into the darkness.

Joanie lifted the shotgun and pressed the barrel to Miranda’s forehead.

“I’ve wanted to do this for years, my dear.”

As her finger squeezed the trigger, Mike launched out of his chair, ropes flying, and slammed into Joanie as the gun exploded. Chunks of plaster rained down from the ceiling as Miranda, too, got her ropes loose and flew out the door after Mr. McGraw. Cop cars seemed to appear from everywhere at once, pinning the Oldsmobile in the driveway.

Miranda screamed, running towards the crowd of officers, guns drawn and pointing at the windshield. “Don’t shoot! My little boy is in there,” she sobbed.

The cops yanked the driver’s side door open and hauled Mr. McGraw out with some difficulty, pushing him roughly to the ground and placing his hands behind his head.

Noah sprang from the car and pelted towards Miranda, weaving between the officers. He threw himself into her arms and she kissed him all over his face. She sank to her knees in the grass and cradled him, laughing and crying at the same time.

There were two more shotgun blasts in quick succession from the house. Miranda stood up while her heart plummeted to her feet.

“Mike–” she whispered. She was up and running with Noah still in her arms, stumbling into the house though the cops shouted at her to stop, running into the bedroom where Joanie lay dead, slumped against the bed, one side of her chest carved out and splattered against the cabbage-print wallpaper. She ran to Mike, who lay on the floor with blood everywhere, so much blood, bubbling up from his chest no matter how many hands she clapped over it. No matter how hard she pushed, the blood just kept coming up through her fingers, up and over them, covering the diamond that sparkled with all the promises of the future, until the whole world turned red right before her eyes.

“Mike, please,” she begged, putting her face close to his, tears dripping off her nose. “Mike. Help is on the way.”

We did it,” he whispered, so faint she almost missed it.You were right, baby. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you.”

“No, no, no…” she groaned, clutching him to chest, her blood smeared fingers tracing lines along his cheek. She kissed his pale lips and rocked in agony. Noah pulled the gauze off his wrists and handed it to her.

“Mama, use this,” he said.

She only cried harder and pulled Noah close, which made him cry too. The Band-Aid wouldn’t help, he understood, because Mike was dead, he could feel it; he could feel Mike slipping away, and he would never say hey, buddy or play with him again and he and Mama wouldn’t get married.

There was a black swirling mist obscuring Mike’s face even now, thickening as Mama kissed him again and again. He died because he had come to save Noah, just like Noah knew he would. Noah cried because he was so sad and tired and his wrists hurt and he was naked and cold and hungry and things didn’t always turn out the way you thought they would, even if you had a special way of seeing things.

Sometimes the most important things you couldn’t see coming, not ever.

 

Noah Knows, Chapters 16-20

Previous installment here  with links to the past chapters.

Chapters 16-20

~Sixteen~

Winter melted into spring, and on one bright April morning Noah awoke and found Mama packing a picnic lunch.

“Are we going to the zoo?” he asked.

“Yes!” she said, surprised. “How did you know?”

Noah smiled.

“Boy, you are going to get harder and harder to surprise, aren’t you?” she asked. “Anyway, eat some breakfast. Mike will be here soon and we’ll all go laugh at the monkeys.”

He hopped into a chair and ate his waffles with plenty of syrup. Mike walked in and kissed Mama and asked Noah if he was ready.

“Almost!” Noah glugged his milk and jumped down again. “I just gotta wash my face off now.”

“What?” Mike exclaimed. “If you wash your face off then how will you see? Or smell? Or eat anything?”

Noah giggled and left the room, returning with his clothes changed and his shoes on. He had new shoes with real laces now because Mama said he was getting too old for Velcro. He carefully tied them into double knots and stood proudly.

“Way to go, buddy.” Mike said. “I don’t think I learned that until I was at least twenty. Good job!” He high-fived Noah and Noah beamed.

The Tulsa Zoo was crowded with families, and Noah paused on the bridge to peer over the railing at the giant catfish turning slow circles in the stream below, waiting for crumbs of any kind to rain into the water. Red eared sliders paddled above them, and an occasional snapping turtle rose from the depths to poke around the surface for a treat, as well.

“Can I have a peanut butter cracker to feed them, Mama?” he pleaded.

She fished around in her bag for the crackers and handed him one. He broke off a piece and sent it sailing downward, where it hit the water with a soft plunk. In an instant a large fishy mouth broke the surface and sucked it in. Noah broke off another piece, trying to aim at a small turtle swimming around the periphery. It landed directly in front of it but before it could move a larger turtle snatched it away.

“Darn it,” Noah muttered. He looked at the last piece in his hand, and ate it instead. Mike laughed.

“Survival of the fittest, huh, Noah?” he asked. “Poor little turtle doesn’t have much of a chance, does he? But don’t worry, he’ll be all right. He’ll be bigger and bullying all the little turtles himself soon enough.”

They entered the zoo and caught a ride on the train to the back of the property. The train was small but fast, and Noah enjoyed the wind on his face and the thrill of scooting through the zoo’s dark tunnel while the conductor rang his bell.

As they got off the train Noah was delighted to see that the lions were pacing in their exhibit. Usually, they were asleep. They jumped at one another, feeling frisky in the spring air, and pounced at one another like kittens.

“That’s awesome, isn’t it?” Miranda asked Noah. “Aren’t you glad you’re not in there with them?”

He nodded, watching the big cats, his eyes shining.

“Maybe they’ll start roaring,” he said. “I bet it’s really loud.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the male lion turned and opened his mouth, emitting a deafening roar. The two females joined in and the sound reverberated off the rocks of the enclosure, making the hair rise on the back of Noah’s neck.

“Wow!” Mike said. “That was weird.” He looked down at Noah and smiled. “Guess they really like you, buddy.”

Mama stared at him and he looked at her with wide eyes.

At the playground Mike pushed him on the swing, and they had their picnic lunch, stretching out on the grass and gazing up at the blue sky. Large, billowy white clouds dotted the expanse, and Mike pointed to one that looked like a dragon.

“There’s fire coming out of its open mouth just there, see?”

Noah nodded. It did look like a dragon, except for its bare, wingless back. Noah had a sudden thought and frowned slightly, concentrating. Imperceptibly at first and then with increasing speed, a lump formed and boiled on the back of the cloud dragon and slowly, as though driven by nothing more than the capricious wind, a pair of amorphous wings sprouted from the form and spread over it.

“Look.” Noah said, pointing. “Now it has wings!”

“Why, it sure does,” Mike said. “The cloud gods must have heard me.”

Noah turned his head to find Mama staring at him again, and he giggled.

After the picnic they found the monkeys and Noah laughed until his sides ached as he watched them chase one another, shrieking, pulling tails and picking fights as they swung from the vines in their enclosure.

“Says here these are Diana Monkeys,” Mike said, reading the placard. “They come from West Africa, and they eat fruit and insects.”

“Can we take that baby home?” Noah asked Mama, pointing at the smallest and most energetic of the group. It was swinging by its long tail and tormenting a much larger female. “Look how cute it is.”

“One monkey is enough.” She bent to tickle him and he shrieked as well, causing the small black primates to halt their shenanigans and stare through the glass at them.

“Look, they think you’re weird,” Noah said.

“I’m weird? You’re weird,” she countered.

“You’re both weird,” Mike said, backing away. “I’m getting out of here. Don’t want anyone to think I’m with you weirdoes.”

They left the primate building and went on to the children’s zoo, the rain forest, and the desert exhibit. As they neared the entrance Noah looked hopefully at the gift shop and tugged at Mama’s hand.

“Just one thing,” she said. “Ten dollars, tops. Can you find something for just ten dollars?”

He nodded eagerly, and they entered the cool building. Loaded from top to bottom with games, stuffed animals, and puzzles, Noah began to hunt for the perfect toy. He examined everything from memory games to giant sunglasses but when he came to a large stuffed Diana monkey, his eyes grew wide. He looked for the price tag. Fifteen dollars. Sighing, he returned it to its place on the shelf.

“Not so fast, buddy,” Mike smiled, taking it back down. “Your Mama didn’t say how much I was contributing,” He glanced at the tag. “I think I’d like to donate five dollars to your cause. And ten plus five makes–wait a minute–I can do this–”

“Fifteen dollars!” Noah shouted, hugging the stuffed creature to his chest. Beaming, he went to find Mama and together they paid and left.

Noah’s feet hurt from walking but he was suffused with contentment. Buckled into his car seat and clutching the monkey, he went over the events of the day and thought there couldn’t be anything better for Mama than Mike. He was like a vitamin that Mama took that made her cheeks glow and her mouth smile like he had never seen before.

He still felt a vague uneasiness creep into his brain when he thought about Mike very hard, but he pushed it far, far down inside until he didn’t feel it anymore. Watching the clouds outside his window, he concentrated hard and a small wisp of condensation formed itself into a monkey with a long tail, sailing alongside their car. He smiled and went to sleep.

 

~Seventeen~

Noah turned five at the end of May, and his party was a huge success. Miranda used every bit of her creative powers and managed to create a monkey cake that Noah couldn’t begin to love enough. He received a scooter and helmet from Grandma and Grandpa, and a sandbox from Miranda and Mike. He got his own RC car from his cousins, and his cup of joy overflowed.

They celebrated all afternoon until the party finally broke up and everyone said their goodbyes, kissing the birthday boy and promising to see him soon.

Miranda sat on the front porch, exhausted but content, and watched Noah ride his new scooter up and down the sidewalk. Mike went to the liquor store for a well-deserved six pack, and he promised to bring Miranda a bottle of wine to give the day a proper send-off. As she sat and watched her boy, she was filled with deliriously good thoughts.

“Mama, can I draw with chalk?” Noah called from the sidewalk, interrupting her reverie.

“Sure honey. Stay right there and I’ll go get it.”

He nodded and got off the scooter, unstrapped his helmet and sat on the first step of the porch.

Miranda went inside, stopping for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the dark house. Where had she put that chalk, anyway? She went to the kitchen and rummaged through a few drawers. She went to the back porch to see if she had left it on the concrete stoop. Nothing. As she stood at the back door, puzzling, she heard a sudden squeal of tires and jumped a little. Stupid neighborhood kids. She went upstairs to see if the chalk was in Noah’s room.

“Noah!” She called, coming back down.

No response.

“Noah?”

Thinking of the squealing tires with belated alarm, she hurried back through the house, meeting Mike at the front door. He was holding a six-pack of pale ale and a bottle of Shiraz.

“Where’s Noah? Is he out there?” she asked, pushing past him.

“I didn’t see him. I figured he was in here with you.”

Miranda’s heart lurched and she stepped onto the front porch. Noah’s helmet lay on the sidewalk. He was nowhere in sight.

She shouted his name, trying to keep her voice natural. She shouted it again. Maybe he’d gone to the back yard. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe she just hadn’t heard him come in. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

She ran through the house with Mike, calling for Noah. The dread was now all-encompassing, a ceaseless rhythm of terror in her head and heart. Her breath came fast and she was fighting tears as she looked at Mike wide-eyed.

“Don’t worry, babe,” he said, worry everywhere on his face. “Let’s look outside.”

They spread out across the yard and then the streets, shouting Noah’s name. Hearing it echo across the neighborhood as the minutes ticked by made Miranda’s blood grow cold in her veins; her boy was really, truly gone.

The tears would not be restrained then, and they came hot and hard. There would be no more scarcely-contained calm; she began to truly scream for Noah when a sudden horrific thought filled her mind. In an instant she was running as hard as she could through the yard, through the chain link gate and down to the drainage ditch, swollen with the runoff of spring storms and moving swiftly into a dark tunnel.

“Noah!” she screamed again, wading in up to her ankles and gasping at the cold. The water reached her knees and nearly knocked her off her feet. Mike appeared over the rise and ran down as well, joining her in the water.

“You can’t just dive in, Miranda; you’re going to drown!”

He reached for her but she pushed him away. She tried to run towards the tunnel but fell to her knees, cold water soaking her up to her neck. Mike grabbed her and brought her to her feet, trying to haul her to the bank.

“He’s gone!” she screamed, struggling with him and pounding on his chest. “Let me go! He’s dead! He’s dead! He’s dead!”

The words would not stop coming; she could not stop saying the awful thought that swirled in her head.

“He is not dead. Miranda; we need to call the police.” He took her by the shoulders and forced her to look at him. “Miranda, please don’t say it, you don’t know that. Please baby, let’s get some help.”

Choking on her sobs, she allowed herself to be pulled from the ditch, allowed herself to hang onto Mike’s emphatic words. She shook violently with cold and fear, and they went back to the house where Mike called 911 and Miranda called everyone she could think of.

Her parents came as fast as they could, and the police arrived along with a team of men to search the drainage ditch. Nothing was happening fast enough. Time itself stretched and warped in the sunny spring air and seemed to taunt Miranda by moving slower than ever. The whole family stood on the pinpoint of dread.

Miranda sat, wrapped in two blankets, still shaking. Sobs rose in her throat but she choked them down, forcing herself to remain calm. Hysteria will not help find Noah. Hysteria will not help–She said the words to herself over and over.

“Has the child ever wandered off in the past?” Detective Jeff Dunhy asked.

He was a kind man but all business, betraying no emotion in the questions although he had two children of his own at home, he told Miranda. She wondered if he tried not to be haunted by the things he saw in his job. She wondered if he was afraid for them, afraid that it was indeed too late, but he would never say such a thing.

“What was the child wearing?”

“Blue corduroy pants,” Miranda answered, voice trembling. “Green shirt with ‘I’m the birthday boy’ written on it in black letters. Today was his birthday.” Tears dripped from her eyes in spite of her best efforts to control them.

“That’s a really good, bright outfit.” the detective said. “Hard for a kid to hide in an outfit like that.”

One of the searchers came trotting up. “Nothing in the storm drain, sir,” he said, his rubber wetsuit dripping onto the Bermuda grass. A cumulative breath of relief was exhaled by everyone at once.

Miranda’s mother wept. “Thank God.”

Miranda closed her eyes and put her face in her hands, overwhelmed with emotion. Fear still gnawed in the pit of her stomach and waves of nausea threatened to overwhelm her at any moment.

“Have you noticed any suspicious people in the neighborhood recently?” the detective asked Mike.

“All quiet around here. This is a quiet neighborhood,” he responded. “You’ve never had any trouble, right baby?” She nodded her head in agreement.

“You know all your neighbors well?”

“Not really,” she said softly. “I mean, most of them are renters like me, We just smile and wave at each other at the most. They always seem decent; lots of people with kids of their own, you know?”

“My officers and I are going to go down the street and ask every single one of them some very specific questions and see if we come up with anything. I’m going to need you to think really hard right now, Miranda. I know it’s difficult to concentrate, but you’ve got to try, for your little boy’s sake. Can you think of anybody—anybody at all—who might want to take Noah?”

Miranda thought hard and shook her head. Everyone loved Noah. Everyone.

“Anybody who wants to get back at you for something you’ve done? Somebody with a grudge?”

There was Hugh, of course, but he was in jail. Again she shook her head.

“Anybody at all who’s been acting strangely?”

And just like that, it exploded like a mushroom cloud over her head, so forceful it brought her to her feet.

“Mr. McGraw.”

 

~Eighteen~

Noah knew he should have run when he saw her. When he saw her coming towards him on the driveway, calling his name after Mama went into the house, he turned to talk to her, even though his guts told him to run inside. She said she had a birthday present for him, and Mama wouldn’t mind if she gave him a birthday present, would she? Noah thought she would, but before he could decide what to do, Joanie’s hand was on him.

She grabbed him hard around the arm with her big hand and he tried to tell her to let him go because she was hurting him. Her hand was like a claw with long shiny pink fingernails and she clapped a rag over his mouth, wet with something stinky and horrible, and the whole world went black, just like that.

Now he didn’t know where he was. His head hurt, his mouth was dry, and his hands were tied behind his back at the wrists. He was sitting on a chair in the dark. He wasn’t afraid of the dark, not really, but he was very afraid of what was going to happen next. He knew he had been kidnapped which was what they called it on TV and sometimes abducted which was a word that meant the same thing. He never really knew why people did the kidnapping or abducting because Mama always snapped off the TV during those programs.

He thought of Mama now and how upset she must be. He wondered if she was crying. He wished she would come through the door now and scoop him up and take him home. He tried not to cry but it didn’t work. The tears dripped onto his pants and his nose ran and he couldn’t wipe it. This upset him and he wormed around in the chair until he could bring his shoulder up and wipe it on that. It was better than nothing.

There was a noise from somewhere and a door opened. A bright shaft of sunlight pierced the inky blackness and he squinted, eyes unable to adjust quickly enough to see anything. Just as quickly the door shut again and he waited. He knew someone had come in but he didn’t know who, he could only hear deep, heavy breathing as though coming from someone or something very large and menacing.

He pushed a little with his mind.

“Mr. McGraw?” he asked, his voice sounding infinitely small in the dark room. No one responded, and the silence scared him more than anything. Mr. McGraw was here, but he was different from the jolly, friendly man he remembered. Something about the numbers Noah gave him made him crazy and Noah could feel his mind; it was like a dead thing all crawling with bugs.

“Mr. McGraw?” he asked again, hoping for an answer.

“Yes, Noah. It’s me,” a voice said slowly. “How did you know it was me?”

“I just…I just knew.”

“That’s right. You just knew.”

Mr. McGraw sounded triumphant, and with a click he turned on an excruciatingly bright flashlight and shone it in Noah’s face, blinding him.

“Ouch. Please, Mr. McGraw. I can’t see.”

“Oops, sorry.” Mr. McGraw flipped the flashlight upward, giggling a little.

“You just knew because you know things, don’t you, Noah? Just like you knew my winning lottery numbers.”

“I guess so.”

“You do. I know you do.”

Mr. McGraw was breathless and practically buzzing with excitement. Noah wanted desperately to believe that part of him was still the kindly man he knew before. He thought that if he was a good boy and helped him, then maybe the good Mr. McGraw would let him go.

“You want me to help you?”

“I do, little man. I do.” Mr. McGraw’s voice was smiling. “I want you to help me pick some horse names, just a few horses that are going to run in a race, that’s all. Just help me pick the ones that are going to win, and all this will be over.”

“And then I can go home?”

“Of course. Then you can go home.”

Noah wasn’t sure. Mr. McGraw didn’t know what he was going to do; he was going to let Joanie decide. He was pushing and pushing on Mr. McGraw’s bug-infested mind with all of his might now because he knew Mama wouldn’t mind; it wasn’t rude to look into the heads of people who kidnapped you, only normal people. He knew she would want him to push his way into Mr. McGraw’s mind, but there was just a blank there. Mr. McGraw didn’t know what he was going to do with him; he was only full of right now.

“Can you untie me? Can I have a drink?” Noah asked. His hands were going to sleep and the ropes itched and he was close to tears again. Mr. McGraw didn’t seem to hear him. He only stared at Noah greedily.

“I’m going to start with something easy,” he said. “Just a little test to make sure Joanie didn’t hurt your magic brain with that chloroform.”

Mr. McGraw left the room and returned with some papers, forgoing the flashlight and flipping the light on as he came in. Noah squinted at the sudden brightness, glancing around to take in his surroundings. The room was entirely pink and wallpapered in an old-fashioned flowery print. Dolls decorated almost every surface. Mr. McGraw sat in front of Noah on a chair and held up the papers. They were print outs from the computer, lots of forms and pictures of horses. The forms had a bunch of words on them.

“All these horses here are about to run a race. Isn’t that fun?” He giggled again. It was not a comforting sound. “One of them is going to win. You just tell me which horse is going to come in first. Just one horse that you feel like is going to win the race, OK?”

Mr. McGraw looked at him expectantly.

“I can’t read, Mr. McGraw.”

“What do you mean you can’t read?”

He looked at him blankly for a moment and then burst into laughter so loud it seemed to shake the walls of the small room. Noah did not know why this was so funny, and the laughter did not make him feel better. It was crazy laughter, which went with his crazy brain.

“Of course you can’t read!” Mr. McGraw exclaimed, wheezing and holding his ponderous stomach as the pendulous fat around his neck jiggled. “You’re only, what? Three?”

“I’m five. Today was my birthday.”

Suddenly, he seemed impatient. “I will read you each name carefully and you tell me which horse will win, you hear?”

Noah nodded.

“Top Gun.” No.

“Cash Rocket.” No.

“Special Man.” Noah shook his head.

“Raging Thunder.” No. Maybe. No. Pretty sure no.

“Shine Time.”

Noah closed his eyes. He saw the race, heard the thundering hooves and smelled the dirt of the track and the sweat of the horses. He nodded. Maybe, yes.

“Shine Time?” Mr. McGraw repeated.

Yes. Noah nodded again. He wasn’t sure, but he just wanted Mr. McGraw to leave him alone. His breath smelled like hot dogs and cheese sauce.

Mr. McGraw let out a whoop and headed for the door. Through the doorway Noah could see him sit at a computer and hit lots of keys. He was fast. Noah fidgeted in his chair and looked around the room again. It was a small bedroom with one bed decorated all in pink ruffles that reminded Noah of his cousin Tori’s last birthday cake.

The walls were papered with shiny cabbage roses and the window wore heavy pink drapes embellished with lace. A dark comforter was nailed over the opening behind the curtains. On the bed sat at least fourteen porcelain dolls bedecked in frilly dresses, with more sitting on a large bookshelf next to the door, all staring at him with cold china blue eyes. Noah wished Mr. McGraw would turn the lights off again.

“Mr. McGraw?” he called through the doorway. “Mr. McGraw, the rope is really hurting…”

“Hold on, I’m busy.” he said. “We’ll get you fixed up in no time.”

Noah wasn’t sure if he was talking to him or the computer screen.

Joanie appeared behind Mr. McGraw. She put her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, leaving a very bright lipstick mark on his sizeable jowl.

“What’s Eddie going to win this time, hmm?” she cooed.

Her voice made Noah want to throw up. She didn’t even care about Mr. McGraw, Noah could see that without even pushing. She wanted his money. Mr. McGraw. You are stupid, he thought.

It made him feel a little bit better to talk to them like that in his mind, so he did it some more.

Mr. McGraw. You are really dumb. Weirdo. Just wait til Mike gets here; he’ll beat you both up. He wasn’t actually sure if it would be OK for Mike to beat up a lady, but he thought maybe he could just punch her once and knock her out.

“Just one race first, I told him,” he heard Mr. McGraw saying to Joanie softly. “I only bet a hundred on this one. Odds are three to one so it should pay out pretty good if the kid is right. And if he is, you and I are going to have the world on a string, baby.”

Joanie made a purring noise and sat on Mr. McGraw’s enormous thigh, kissing him over and over again. Mr. McGraw was running his hands over her butt and under her sweater when she looked towards the open door.

“Look at him, the little letch,” Joanie said with a nasty smile. “Mind your own business, kid.”

She walked over and kicked the door shut, leaving Noah with only the dolls for company.

 

~Nineteen~

They knocked on every door in the neighborhood and turned up nothing suspicious, so the detective questioned Miranda and Mike again and they gave all the same answers.

She had gone inside for a few minutes. She didn’t know how many, exactly. She had heard the squealing of tires. Mike had come in. No, Mike had not seen anything suspicious. Detective Dunhy wrote everything down in his notepad again and left, promising to call when anything turned up.

Miranda turned her fear inward and raged at herself for leaving Noah alone on the front step. She raged at herself for being the worst parent on the planet, for having no sense. She raged and wept and Mike stood and tried to talk to her, tried to reason but got nowhere; grief had washed her sanity out to sea.

Exhausted, laying numbly in Mike’s arms on the couch, Miranda jumped when the doorbell rang, and raced everyone in the house to the front door. Detective Dunhy stood in the evening light, looking grim.

“Stopped at Edward McGraw’s house but he was either not answering or not at home,” he said. “We’ll check back later, of course, but I was wondering if you have any other ideas. We ran a background check and it came up with nothing; he’s clean. It’ll be hard to get a search warrant unless you can remember anything more incriminating than his odd behavior.”

Miranda had nothing. His behavior at work was irritating and disturbing but not illegal, and he had not come to her home again.

“Do you know where he might be? Visiting family, maybe?”

Mr. McGraw was an only child and a lonely man, Miranda knew for certain. His parents had died within six months of one another two years ago; she remembered him attending their funerals. She shook her head.

“Anyone else we might ask?”

“There’s Joanie,” Miranda said. “I think they might have started dating in the last few months. Anyway, they act really weird around each other, secretive.”

The detective scribbled down Joanie’s full name, and left.

Miranda’s mind spun wearily. Could Joanie have something to do with this? Was Joanie capable of inflicting this kind of pain on her? Yes, they had a mutual loathing for one another, but was she a kidnapper? It hardly seemed proportionate payback for all the years of numbers slipped to Miranda over the counter at work. Were they in this together, she and Mr. McGraw?

If they really were dating, then Mr. McGraw must have convinced her of Noah’s power. He was the goose who laid the golden egg, and that meant cash to Edward and Joanie, who could not wait to scramble up those eggs into a million dollar omelet.

Where are you, sweetheart? Miranda thought. Where are you? Please tell me you’re all right.

Would the cops find Noah easily, or were he and his kidnappers out of the city by now? Long gone? They could be out of the country by now.

The thought of her son in the middle of a hostage situation was unbearable. She paced the floor although her legs felt heavy and wooden.

“Miranda,” Mike pleaded. “Come sit down, baby. Please? Take a rest for a minute. The police are doing everything they can.”

She positioned herself beside him on the couch, cell phone at the ready. He stroked her hair and she wearily closed her eyes. Her mother, who looked just as haggard, brought her a cup of chamomile tea and she drank it even though she hated tea but she hated seeing her mother worry more. As she drained the last of the cup her head felt unbearably heavy and she laid it down on Mike’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get him back,” he whispered in her ear. “You listen to me–we’re getting him back.”

“We’re getting him back,” she murmured and fell fast asleep.

 

Again, the dream in the rain. Again, the great looming presence that strangled her breath in her throat. This time there was no Dean in his Camaro, though. This time the shape just kept advancing, rain pelting off its surface. She beat it with her umbrella and screamed, but her mouth filled with water and she choked as the shape caught her around the throat and lifted her off the ground.

Mama. Noah’s voice said. Mama, help. They took me.

Then she was no longer in the rain, no longer being held by the throat by the shapeless mass, but standing completely dry in a bedroom that could have come from her grandparents’ house. It was replete with lace and smelled damp and slightly moldy. The wallpaper was straight from the 1940’s with large cabbage roses and black and white photos of long dead ancestors on the walls. The bed was covered with more dolls than she could count. Noah stood at her side, his mouth stitched shut with the heavy twine but staring up at her as though trying desperately to say something.

Come get me, Mama. I miss you.

She jerked awake. She was alone on the couch and there was a faint glimmer of light through the window. From the kitchen she heard murmurs of conversation. She was damp with sweat and her heart was again pounding but she knew—absolutely knew—that Noah was with Mr. McGraw, somewhere. She knew Joanie was in on it. Noah said they and what else could that mean?

Rage welled inside her and she leapt from the couch. She found her father and Mike sitting at the kitchen island. Mike held out his arms.

“I know it was Mr. McGraw and Joanie,” she announced. “I know it. I had a dream–Noah talked to me. They’re holding him in a bedroom somewhere…I saw the bedroom, it was an old lady’s bedroom. We’ve got to call the police, we’ve got to tell them.”

“Sugar, wait,” her father said. “What are we going to tell them? You had a dream?”

“We’ve got to try!” she yelled, bringing her fist down on the counter with a crash. “What do you expect me to do, Dad? Just sit here and wait for them to find his corpse? Do you think he’s going to be found by just sitting around and talking? How can you just sit and do nothing?”

Tears of frustration spilled from her eyes.

“The police are trying to locate Mr. McGraw,” Mike said. “As soon as they do, they’ll call.”

Miranda’s anger ebbed away as quickly as it had risen. She knew what they said was true; she needed more information. She cursed waking too soon; maybe if she’d slept longer…

“Let me get you some coffee,” Mike said. She nodded, sitting on the barstool beside him. The clock on the oven read 7:25 a.m.

“Is today Monday?” she asked. She felt like she had been asleep for more than one night. “Are the police going to be at the DMV?”

“I asked Detective Dunhy that,” Mike said. “He said they’d be waiting and would question them there. If they don’t show up they’ll put out a BOL and try to get warrants to search their homes.”

This sounded reasonable. So reasonable Miranda wanted to kick something. She stood and paced as she drank her coffee.

They talked more, canvassing the same scenarios they had discussed a thousand times before, but it was better than sitting in silence and imagining the worst. Miranda’s adrenal glands released a fresh gush into her system at regular intervals, making her feel nauseated and exhausted and the coffee was only making her heart race faster.

“I will sit on you and force some food into you before I let you starve yourself.” Mike said, his voice harder than she’d ever heard it. “I know you don’t feel like it but you’re going to be useless before too long if you don’t eat something.”

She knew he was right and heaved a giant sigh.

“Give me the bagels then, dammit.”

She reached into the bag, grabbed one and bit into it. “Happy?” she asked, her mouth full.

Miranda’s phone rang and they all jumped. She fumbled for it, swallowed the dry bagel, and nearly choked on her hello.

It was Detective Dunhy.

“I wanted to let you know that we just spoke to both Mr. McGraw and Joanie,” he said. “They claim to have been together at her home on Sunday for the whole day. They gave us permission to look through their apartments, so I’m not very hopeful we will find anything. Both were quite agreeable; seemed shocked that such a thing had happened and expressed their hope that Noah would be found quickly. Mr. McGraw said to tell you to take as much time off as you need.” He paused. “I’m sorry, Miranda.

Miranda sat in stunned silence.

“Mrs. Griffith? Are you there?”

“I’m here,” she said, feeling dizzy. “I can’t believe it. I didn’t think they’d actually come to work.”

“You were hoping they’d go missing, to make the case clear-cut. I know,” said Detective Dunhy. He sighed. “Unfortunately, most cases are not that easy.”

“I just know they have him,” she said.

“I’m sure you do, but the evidence does not support that. We’re heading to their homes and will contact you if we find anything. Until then, try to keep your hopes up. And call me if you think of anything else.”

The line went dead and Miranda dug her fingernails into her palm, determined to keep from crying again. She sat heavily on the barstool and put her head on her arms.

“I can’t believe they showed up at work. I can’t believe it,” she said. “Where could they be keeping him? Help me think, I can’t think straight.” She looked at Mike pleadingly.

“Does Mr. McGraw have another home? If they have him, they must have him somewhere nearby.”

“Don’t say if,” she said. “It’s not if. It’s not. I know they have him!”

“Sugar, please,” her father said. “We’re all in this together.”

He looked so tired in that moment that Miranda’s conscience smote her and she relented. She couldn’t expect them all to feel as strongly as she did. Noah hadn’t spoken to them, after all.

“I’m sorry. I just can’t help it,” she said sadly. “I’ll probably bite all your heads off more than once until I have Noah back in my arms. Forgive me, please?”

The tears came again, and again she wondered if they would ever just dry up. Mike and her father joined together in a group hug with her in the center. Her mother came into the kitchen and joined in. She felt the cumulative love and concern of the whole family surrounding her, and her strength renewed.

“Maybe the cops will find something,” she said in a muffled voice from Mike’s shoulder. “Maybe they’ll find chloroform or a whole room with photos of Noah.”

She shuddered at the thought, but it gave her hope.

 

~Twenty~

Noah was trying to be brave, but it was getting harder and harder. His feet were tingling and falling asleep, dangling off the end of the chair. His arms were numb and his wrists burned from the chafing of the rope. He was afraid of the dolls and their staring eyes. He sat in the deafening silence of the house and listened to it pop and settle as the hours ticked past. He cried.

Mama, he thought. Mama, come and find me. Please. Help me, Mama. I miss you.

He studied every corner of the room and counted the roses on the wall (682). He tried not to look at the dolls.

With a growing sense of dread he realized he had to go to the bathroom. He hadn’t seen Mr. McGraw or Joanie in hours. Joanie told him to be a good boy and play nice. She cackled when she said it. Joanie reminded him of a lizard with poisonous spit he had seen once on a nature program. When the lizard bit something it didn’t have to kill it right away, it just had to wait until it died from the poisonous spit, slowly and painfully.

He was bored and scared and he tried screaming as loud as he could, screaming and screaming for help like he knew he should, but when the echoes of his screams died away in the house he heard no sounds of rescue from people outside. He wiggled in his chair but when he almost tipped it over, he stopped in fright. He did not want to fall over tied to a chair.

He had to go to the bathroom worse and worse.

He thought maybe he could make the rope snap, just think hard enough and he could get free, but Mama had said not to let anyone know about his powers; she had made him promise, and if he got free of the ropes what would he do then? What if they came back before he could get help? What if they figured out he had more powers?

He knew that if Joanie and Mr. McGraw found out he had more powers than just numbers and horse names, he would be in more trouble than he already was. He was terrified of Joanie’s lizard face, and he had visions of her cutting him into little pieces to figure out how to use his powers for herself.

Exhausted, he slept, slumped over in the hard kitchen chair, head dangling to the side, drool dampening his T-shirt. He slept, exhausted beyond enduring, wishing and hoping for rescue that didn’t come. He slept, and he dreamt, and he tried to find Mama in his head, tried to reach her in that in-between place that only sleep touches.

 

Edward McGraw was nervous. He was nervous, but he smiled. It was important, and Joanie had lectured him fiercely. It was absolutely essential that he put on the performance of a lifetime, so he smiled innocently and wrinkled his brow in concern when the cops showed up.

He did a really good job, he thought, looking back. The detective had swallowed every bit of their story. They were crazy about each other and had spent the entire weekend at her house, they said, celebrating their love. Joanie was great, too.

That woman sure could lie like a rug, he thought admiringly. She made sorrowful, whimpering noises when the cop told them about Noah. So sad! So unfortunate! I hope you catch the bastards that took him. He had added to her sentiments, as best he could. The cop nodded and agreed.

He reviewed their performances, somewhat amazed at how well he did. His desk chair creaked in alarm as he tilted back and put his hands behind his head. They wouldn’t find a single thing in their apartments. Joanie said they should take Noah somewhere else. Like his parents’ house on the opposite side of town. They’d never look that far because he was squeaky clean, and Joanie too. Not even a parking ticket on their records.

They made her apartment look lived in over the weekend. Dirty dishes in the sink; a bed unmade, recently rented DVDs from RedBox. They thought this one through, for sure. That Joanie was a smart one. Soon, they’d both be rich as Midas and they’d get out of this hideous office and run away together. Live in a high-rise in Atlantic City. Somewhere exciting, where they could spend their money on fine steak and diamonds.

The only real question was what to do with Noah when they were finished with him. He pursed his lips. They couldn’t just let him go, could they?

Best not to worry about that for now. Joanie knew what to do. It had been so easy, so flawless, the way she had grabbed Noah off the street. Nobody had seen it, she said. Nobody had a clue.

She was like a ghost. A ghost with an ass that just wouldn’t quit. He smiled and lapsed into a daydream.

As if on cue, Joanie walked in and shut the door behind her.

He stretched out his arms but she looked decidedly un-amorous and he became alarmed. She had a temper that frightened him.

“Dammit, Eddie,” she hissed. “You’ve got to be working, you hear me? Working, like nothing happened. If we just sit here, people will get suspicious. You’ve got to work and act like there’s nothing going on in your miserable little life.”

“I was just daydreaming a little bit,” he said, mollified. “About you and me, if you know what I mean.” He tried to pull her to him but she stepped out of reach.

“Get busy,” she said and stalked out, leaving him completely deflated.

Later, they closed up the office and drove to her apartment, just in case anyone was watching. They watched a mindless television program and had extremely creative sex before moving quietly through the darkened parking lot to an Oldsmobile on the opposite side of the complex. The car also belonged to Eddie’s deceased parents and was still registered in their names. They drove twenty minutes across Tulsa to a nondescript suburb and parked in front of a small red brick ranch house.

“I’m about to bust open,” Eddie chortled, rubbing his palms together. Joanie insisted he wait for the race results. His enthusiasm was a dangerous thing.

Entering the house, he went straight to the monitor and flipped it on. From the adjacent room they could hear a muffled crying.

“Can you check on Noah?” he asked Joanie as he brought up the online racing results.

“I will not,” she said coldly. “You go see what’s wrong with the brat. He likes you better; you’re not the one who nabbed him.”

Mr. McGraw scrolled down the page. The results were there, and he stared at them, and then at Joanie, with his mouth open. Joanie turned livid and stalked into the bedroom.

Noah sat, tied to the chair, pale faced. The crack of Joanie’s hand across his face sounded like a gunshot in the small room. He almost tipped sideways in the chair from the force of it, eyes wide with shock and fear. Straightening up again, he began to cry in earnest.

“You filthy brat!” she spat. “What’s your game, huh? You trying to play us, you little creep? Didn’t you tell him, Eddie, what would happen if he tried to screw us over?”

“Easy, Joanie,” Mr. McGraw said, lumbering in behind her. “Maybe he was just confused. Maybe it was the chloroform, huh? Maybe?”

“Maybe,” she said grudgingly, staring at Noah with narrowed eyes. She leaned towards him and shook her fist in his face as he cringed. “Listen, kid. We just lost a hundred dollars because of you. Next time it won’t be a slap you get, you hear? Next time you get my fist in your face.”

Noah was terrified. Joanie’s face hovered before him like a snake about to strike. His cheek burned and a great red handprint had already begun to rise from his pale skin.

“What is that fucking smell?” she said. She backed away from Noah with a look of disgust. “He shit himself! Seriously, he’s like an animal!”

“I tried to hold it,” Noah sobbed. “I tried to hold it but I couldn’t. I need to go potty!”

“Joanie, what did we expect?” Mr. McGraw said, sounding a little panicked. “He’s only a kid. We left him here all day.”

“Take the fucking animal to the bathroom and get him cleaned up,” she said, gritting her teeth. “And when you’re done, get him to give you some names again. The right names. I’m going to order a pizza.”

Noah shivered from exhaustion and pain. Showered clumsily and wrapped in a towel, Mr. McGraw sat him on a clean chair in the kitchen where he and Joanie could keep an eye on him as they sat at the computer desk.

The kitchen was mostly olive green with peeling linoleum and Formica countertops, a time capsule from the 1940s. A shotgun leaned against the wall by the front door. Noah’s wrists were bleeding and he cried out in pain as Mr. McGraw wrapped them in some ancient gauze he found in his parents’ medicine cabinet.

“Shut up you little brat,” Joanie muttered as she shoved a piece of pizza into her mouth. Seeing him follow her every movement, she grinned wickedly. “You like pizza? Huh? Wish you could have some, do you?” She waved it under his nose and his lip trembled. His heart was beating a strange and unnatural rhythm and his head felt too heavy for his neck. His stomach had stopped growling hours ago but now it began again in earnest, churning.

“Stop it, Joanie,” Mr. McGraw said, with as much force as he could. “You make him too weak, what good is that gonna do? He’ll be too weak to pick any of the right horses, huh?”

Joanie shrugged and turned away.

“He better start picking the right horses before I pick his teeth out of my fist,” she muttered.

“You want some pizza, Noah?” Mr. McGraw asked. “Here you go.”

Noah wolfed down the slice and gulped a glass of water. He felt faint with relief, and slumped in the chair with his eyes closed.

“We’re going to try again, Noah, OK?” Mr. McGraw forced a pained smile. “Your first try didn’t work out, little man. You picked the horse that was dead last. I think that was just a mistake. I don’t think you did it on purpose like Joanie thinks. You don’t want to upset Joanie, right? We’re going to take a little more time and pick more carefully.”

Noah did not want to upset Joanie. He wouldn’t make himself feel better by talking ugly to her in his head anymore. He wondered if she could hear what he was saying in his head and that was why she was so mean. He was afraid, truly and deeply afraid, and every time he glanced at the shotgun by the door he felt sick.

Mr. McGraw brought the print-outs from the computer, sat beside Noah, and read the names of the horses. Slowly and carefully he made his way through the list, enunciating the names as though Noah were a foreigner asking for directions. Noah closed his eyes and concentrated, trying harder to see the winner and not just the excitement of the race.

This time, he had to be right.

 

Noah Knows, chapters 11-15

Catch up here!

 

Chapter 11-15

~Eleven~

“Mama, who him?”

Noah’s voice was just a whisper, but it cut through the air like a knife to Miranda’s brain. She opened her eyes to find his face barely an inch from hers, and sat up, groggy, holding her hands to her head in case it should fall right off her shoulders.

“Who him?” he said again, pointing beside her to the sleeping form of Mark. Mark? Mike. Yes, Mike.

Surprised and annoyed that he was still occupying her space, she rose and pulled her clothes on, stumbled to the kitchen and took six Advil, washing them down with a glass of water. Why was she annoyed? She tried to think clearly. Wasn’t this what she wanted? A man who stuck around to see her in the morning?

Examining her face in the reflective surface of the toaster, she decided she had been wrong. Very wrong indeed.

“Mama, you awright?” the small voice asked.

“I’m fine, honey.” She took a deep breath. “Mama just has a bad headache. Can you go watch a show until I feel better?”

Obedient as ever, he disappeared, leaving her to sit, head in her hands, waiting for the pills to take effect and the room to stop lurching beneath her. Her stomach was indifferent to her suffering, and added its own layer of agony by gurgling constantly and reminding her of nature programs about volcanos she watched as a kid.

Never mind. She’d survive, like she always did.

Only now there’s a guy in your bed, she thought. That’s new.

She’d have to wake him up and kick him out. Nancy might hate her for doing it, but she was sure she’d get over it. Mike was cute as hell but he went to bed with her so quickly, she was certain he wasn’t any different than the other men she brought home. Does a nice guy take a girl home from a honky tonk? Does a nice girl go to bed with any pair of dimples that charms her?

She groaned slightly, massaging her temples. There seemed to be more than one person speaking in her head, and she wished fervently they would all shut up.

There was a deep voice from the doorway. “You OK?”

Mike stood, buckling his belt and grinning at her.

“Oh, sure. I’m fine. Just hung over,” she said lamely, trying to meet his eyes. He was resplendent, she thought. He looked like he just stepped off the pages of a western-wear catalog. She, on the other hand, looked like shit. It was patently unfair and really irritating.

“I’m sorry. I never get those. Don’t know why. Anything I can do? How about some breakfast? Bacon and eggs?”

“Oh my god, please don’t say those words,” she gasped, putting a hand over her mouth.

He grimaced and went to her, rubbing her back between the shoulder blades with one strong hand.

“You sure have a cute kid, by the way. You didn’t mention that last night.”

“Must have slipped my mind,” Miranda muttered. “Most guys aren’t too excited about kids, if you know what I mean.”

“Guess I’m not most guys.”

He rubbed her back and she cursed herself for having no plan in place for making men leave. It had never been a problem before.

“I don’t want to be rude or anything but I really, really don’t feel good,” she finally said over the silence that, to her, was growing increasingly awkward. “I’m not going to be very good company today.”

“That’s all right, no problem.” He stopped rubbing her back. “Want me to make some coffee?”

“I really don’t.”

“Want me to just…leave?”

“I actually do.”

He stood for a moment. “Listen, Miranda, I really enjoyed last night. Can I have your number?”

She scrawled it on a Post-It and he was gone. Flopping on the battered sofa beside Noah, she laid her head against his small form and cursed inwardly. What was wrong with her, anyway? Why was she so mean to him? Maybe he really was different. He certainly acted different. He acted like the man she claimed she wanted. Why was everything so goddam confusing?

“Mama, whozzat man?” Noah asked from around his thumb.

“His name was Mike,” she said.

“Mike gonna die,” he said.

Miranda groaned and covered her head with a pillow.

 

~Twelve~

“Dammit, hon, why can’t you just shut your brain off and accept that something good could happen to you?”

Nancy jabbed a southwestern eggroll at Miranda for emphasis.

Hannah nodded in agreement, eyebrows raised. “Holy heck, we both saw him with our own eyes; we’d be giving him another try.”

“I don’t know, you guys. You just don’t understand–”

“There are nice guys out there,” Hannah insisted.

“And one of them wants to go out with you,” Nancy said. “Like, to have a real relationship and everything.”

“He’s called me every day for a week. But how do I know he’s a nice guy?” Miranda demanded. “Everybody thought Hugh was a nice guy too.”

She gesticulated with an eggroll of her own, corn escaping and flying onto the table at Chili’s.

“Remember? You were all ‘wow, you’re so lucky Miranda!’ And ‘I wish he had a brother, Miranda!’ And ‘you’ll be rich and happy and oh my god, he’s such a dreamboat, Miranda!’”

“I do not recall using the word ‘dreamboat,’ even one time,” Hannah protested. “I mean, yeah, he was pretty hunky but honestly his chin was a little too big.”

“And his eyes were damn close together, now that I think about it,” Nancy said.

“And the way he was so particular about his hair,” Hannah said. “Like, it was all shellacked and stuff. It looked like a helmet!”

“OK, so he was ugly and had beady eyes and helmet hair.” Miranda could not help laughing. “If nobody could see through his fucking evil disguise, how will I ever know if any guy is safe and decent?”

“You said you had a good feeling about him,” Hannah said.

“So I had a good feeling. I had several good feelings, actually.” She grinned. “But so what? I’m apparently a really bad judge of character.”

“No Miranda, it’s like you have a sixth sense,” Nancy protested. “Like last year when I wanted to rent that apartment but you said it gave you the heebie jeebies, and then I found out the last tenant had died there?”

“And that time you said I shouldn’t buy that car a couple years back, remember that?” Hannah asked. “And they issued a recall on it just a couple months later?”

“Those are silly little things,” Miranda said. “They’re no proof of my good judgment.”

“Your judgment is not the issue here, hon.”

Nancy reached across the table and patted Miranda’s hand. “What’s really the issue is that one guy—just one guy—had some kind of evil superpower that kept you from seeing who he really was.”

“I think it’s actually called psychopathic,” Miranda said. “Like Ted Bundy–he had everybody fooled too.”

“There ya go,” said Nancy. “Just like Bundy. So cut yourself some slack. You were just a baby.”

“So what now?” Miranda asked, making room on the table for the sizzling fajitas. “I mean, I’ve turned him down so many times now. What if he doesn’t call again?”

“Honey, you pick up that phone and you call him. It ain’t over til the fat lady sings.”

 

Apparently the fat lady was not even warming up, because as soon as Miranda had left a voicemail for Mike, her own phone began to ring.

“Hey!” he said rather breathlessly. “I was just–working out, which I know sounds hopelessly fake but I swear that’s what I was doing. I was running but then the phone rang and interrupted my music. When I saw your number I couldn’t believe it; still can’t. Please tell me you’re calling for a date and not because you’re looking for someone to water your plants or something while you’re on vacation, because that might just crush me completely, even though I would do it for you. OK. I always talk a lot when I’m nervous.”

“Wow,” Miranda said. “I don’t remember that from the other night.”

“Probably because I wasn’t nervous.”

“Really? Why not?”

“Because I thought for sure we had a thing–a connection. God, that sounds horrible, but really, that’s how I felt. And I thought you did, too, at least until you kicked me out. I’ll stop talking now. At some point. Maybe.”

“You sure know how to make a girl feel wanted,” Miranda said, smiling.

“Good. Because you are. I mean, I want another chance to fix whatever the hell I did wrong. What did I do wrong, by the way? I thought we had such a good time. Was I wrong?”

“No,” she sighed.

The conversation was getting way deeper, way faster than she had intended. Mike was upfront about feelings, that was certain, which was a little unnerving but also kind of refreshing,

“I just–I’ve been burned in the past. I don’t easily trust guys because of that.”

“But you brought me home easily enough.”

Miranda flinched.

“It’s not really a habit of mine,” she said. “The one night thing. I just needed somebody. Most guys don’t stick around, and especially not if they find out about Noah.”

“I’m not most guys,” Mike repeated. “I thought I was getting super lucky for once. Not that I wasn’t. I mean, I was. Super lucky–I think. That is why you’re calling me, right? For a date? Not the plants thing?”

“I don’t have any plants,” she laughed.

“Thank God. I kill everything I touch. I mean, plants. Not people. Can we pick a time so I can get off the phone now, before I destroy any chance I still have?”

A few minutes later Miranda hung up, laughing harder than she had in a long time. A guy couldn’t get more awkward than that. Or more adorable.

 

~Thirteen~

The school Christmas party was supposed to be fun, Noah knew it was, but it really wasn’t. He had a whole bag of treats from the other kids and they played game after game all day, but his head hurt a little bit and his stomach was upset. Mama said it was because he ate too many treats but Noah knew it was more than that.

For one thing, numbers kept popping into his head. When he looked at the other kids, the numbers would just come. Jane was 3272073. Donnie was 6182032. Emily was 10302068. And when he looked at his friend Benjamin he didn’t hear numbers at all but saw a dark mist enveloping his entire head and suddenly thought leukemia.

He knew what it meant. He had heard the word before, and he knew that it was a disease, a really bad disease, and Benjamin didn’t even know he had it. Benjamin was going to die because the black cloud was all over him. He didn’t know if it was going to be soon, but it was coming.

He wished he didn’t know. He didn’t want to tell Mama because she would cry. He wanted to be like Benjamin, who was happily licking icing off his fingers, completely unaware that death was perched on his shoulders.

“Mama, can we go home?” he whispered in her ear. “Can we be done now?”

“You’re really not feeling good, are you?” she asked, alarmed at his pale face. “Yes, sure, honey; we’ll go home now.”

And now they were home and he felt a little better, but only a bit. Benjamin was going to die and he wouldn’t see him anymore and there was nothing he could do about it and no one he could tell. He didn’t know when it would happen; no other numbers or thoughts dropped into his head, and he wondered if, maybe, he shut the door on them before they could. Shutting the door made his head hurt, but it was worth it.

He just didn’t want to know.

Mama made him some hot tea that tasted yucky but it was supposed to help his stomach, so he drank it. It tasted like dried grass. He just wanted his stomach to stop hurting. It helped a little. Being home with Mama made him feel better, and when she picked him up and hugged him and hummed “Would You Like to Swing on a Star,” he felt almost all the way better.

Would you like to swing on a star? she sang. Carry moonbeams home in a jar? And be better off than you are? Or would you rather be a pig?

He giggled when she snorted like a pig and snuffled in his ear. It tickled.

Or would you rather be a fish? A fish is an animal that swims in a brook. It can’t write its name or read a book!

He sang along with Mama and liked how their voices sounded together. To fool the people is its only thought! It may be slippery but it still gets caught!

Some people were like that, Noah thought. All they wanted was to fool people. They were slippery. Joanie was like that. The man who hurt Mama when he was born was like that. Slippery. But he got caught, and now he was in jail. Mama didn’t think he knew, but he did. He wasn’t sure if it had dropped, or if he had heard her talking about it to Grandma and Grandpa. He had known about it for as long as he could remember.

He knew what people who were slippery felt like. When he saw them his mind did a little shudder. Sometimes he saw them at school or on the street or from his car seat out the window. They were everywhere, but they all looked normal. Most of them wore fancy clothes but some of them didn’t, and all of them looked really nice. It was weird, how nice people could look when they really weren’t.

The next day was Saturday, and Mama was home. Saturday and Sunday were his favorite days. Mama didn’t have to work, and he didn’t have to go to school. And today they were making gingerbread guys. Mama had bought bags of candy and icing, and Noah could hardly wait. He sat perched on a barstool at the kitchen counter and waited for Mama to get all the stuff together so he could start.

“Noah, I want to tell you something.” she said as she set bowls of M&Ms and Red Hots and sprinkles in front of him. “I want to tell you about somebody who’s coming over today. In just a little bit.”

“Nancy?” he asked, licking his finger and coating it with sprinkles. “Or Hannah?”

“No, not them.” Mama said. “Don’t do that, it’s germy.”

He complied, wiping his wet finger on his pants.

“It’s–a man. His name is Mike.”

“I ‘member Mike. He was in yours bed.”

“That’s him. Same guy. Do you mind if he comes over?”

“He wants to make gingerbread guys, too?”

“Well, maybe.” She smiled. “Maybe he will. Is that OK with you?”

“Yeah. That’s OK.” Noah didn’t mind sharing. There was a whole stack of gingerbread guys, and a bunch of stars, too.

“Noah?” Mama asked.

“What?” He picked out a blue M&M and popped it in his mouth.

“Hey! I saw that.” She laughed but didn’t tell him to stop so he took another. “Remember when you saw Mike and you said he was going to die? Do you know when? You don’t think it will be soon, right?”

Noah shook his head. He did not remember. He was not going to try to remember, either. Mama seemed relieved, and he was glad.

“Well, he’s going to be here soon and–”

The doorbell rang and she jumped a little. She went to open it and Noah took the opportunity to eat three more M&M’s. In a minute she came back in the room with the tall man Noah remembered.

“Hey bud,” he said, holding out his hand. Noah shook it. “Nice to see you again. You making cookies? Gingerbread men? Looks like fun.”

“Yes. You can do one, too.” Noah handed him a man from the plate. “You can use my candy. But don’t use the Red Hots. They’re too spicy.”

“The Red Hots are my favorite,” Mama said.

“Not surprised,” Mike said, and winked.

Mama laughed. Noah liked to see Mama happy, and he could tell that she really was, because it wasn’t the laugh she did around Mr. McGraw or the moms and dads of the kids at school.

Mike made Mama happy, and nothing was dropping into his head about him, even when he pushed just a tiny bit, so he was happy, too. Mike was not slippery. Mike was just…Mike. His head was full of Mama.

They sat and decorated gingerbread men until the sun started coming through the blinds on the kitchen windows. Noah made a gingerbread girl and a gingerbread boy and lots of stars. He liked the concentration it took to cover every spot on the icing with candy; he felt peaceful even about Benjamin. Benjamin was going to die but so was everybody, someday, and maybe everybody was just a gingerbread man. Maybe everybody was here to make somebody happy and then be gone.

Mama made a gingerbread man to look like Mike; it had a blue shirt and blue M&M’s for eyes, and she even picked out all the yellow sprinkles to use for his hair. She also made a gingerbread girl that looked like herself, with red sprinkles for hair and a red mouth. Mike made lots of crazy men that looked like aliens. He was eating one now.

“I’m starving,” he said, his mouth full. “Can we be done now?”

“You sound just like Noah,” Miranda said. “Yes, let’s be done. Are you done, Noah?”

He nodded. “Look, Mama, a star for you to swing on, just like the song.” Picking up her gingerbread girl, he stuck it onto his star.

“Cool!” she said.

“You look great. Mind if I devour you?” Mike said to the cookie, smiling hugely.

“Mike,” Mama laughed. “Shush!”

He didn’t know what they were laughing about but Noah knew it was grown-up stuff. He smiled and bit the head off of one of his men. Grown-ups were really weird sometimes.

 

~Fourteen~

Christmas Day was a cross between the circus and the Oklahoma Land Run. There was just no way around it. Miranda, Mike and Noah, her two brothers and their wives and kids all descended upon Lucy and Dale’s house in the morning and the festivities didn’t stop until well after sunset.

Wrapping paper covered the floor, empty boxes—eviscerated of the tantalizing toys—were stacked in piles against the walls. The kitchen had disgorged every plate, cup, and bit of silverware and now stood littered with the same. The air echoed with the strains of Bing Crosby crooning “Silver Bells” and the shrieks of seven children on a sugar rush.

Madness. Miranda thought. Glorious madness.

She was in the kitchen, cleaning up until close to midnight. Her mother insisted on bringing out the good china for every special occasion, so Miranda stood at the sink, elbow deep in warm soapy water, and washed each plate and bowl with care.

She didn’t mind. Washing dishes was soothing, actually, and mildly hypnotic. It was satisfying to pull each item smeared with gravy, icing, or cranberry sauce from the water and rinse it sparkling clean. She loved her mother’s china, too, a creamy white with tiny flowers along the edges and a gold rim.

She was finished with the dishes and had moved on to the silverware when Mike came up behind her and put his arms around her waist.

“Hey, you,” she said, smiling.

“Hey,” he replied, kissing the top of her head. “Want me to take a turn?”

“Naw. I like to do it. Is Noah OK?”

“He’s great. Actually convinced him to take a break and brush his teeth before they started the movie. He’s all laid out on the sleeping bags with the other kids. They’re going to watch It’s A Wonderful Life.

“He’ll be asleep in two seconds, I bet.”

“I always thought that movie was boring when I was a kid.”

“Me too,” Miranda said. “I like it now, though.”

“Who wouldn’t like George Bailey? ‘You call this a happy family? Why do we have to have all these kids?’”

Mike did a first-rate impression of Jimmy Stewart.

All these kids is right. You handled the mayhem extremely well.”

“It was a little chaotic.”

“You call that a little?” she asked.

“It was a lot chaotic,” he agreed, laughing. “But it was fun. I have a ton of cousins, too. Seeing them all spread out on the floor; lots of good memories there.”

“I’m glad I didn’t overwhelm your sensors. Thought maybe you’d run for the hills after all this mess.”

Mike took her soapy hands out of the dishwater and turned her around. She protested weakly, grabbing for a towel. He laughed and wiped her hands on his T-shirt.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. Tipping her chin up to her face, he kissed her longingly. She raised her arms and put them around his shoulders as he slid his hands to the small of her back and pressed her to him.

Miranda’s brother Joel entered the kitchen and came to a skidding halt behind them. “Sorry. I just need some milk for the bottle.”

Miranda smiled and pushed Mike away in feigned disgust. “He just can’t resist me! I don’t like him at all.”

“I can see that.” Joel laughed. “He looks like he’s crawling with cooties.”

Miranda finished the silverware and Mike dried and stacked it on the counter. She turned to survey the kitchen and nodded with satisfaction.

“Mom went to bed an hour ago, completely exhausted. She’ll appreciate this in the morning.”

Dale came into the kitchen and gave Miranda a hug.

“Sugar, why don’t you just crash in the camper tonight? It’s so late; Noah’s already asleep on the floor. I hate the thought of you driving this late.”

“I would Dad, but Mike came with me, remember?”

Her father hesitated and then smiled. “Does Mike have something against campers? He’s welcome to stay, too.”

“No sir, no camper phobias here,” Mike said.

“I’ll get you some blankets,” her father said and headed down the hallway, Miranda in tow.

He rummaged through the linen closet and piled several comforters into Miranda’s arms.

“There you go. Sure to keep you warm. As if you need them,” he added with a wink.

“Miranda’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open a bit. She wasn’t accustomed to this kind of liberality from her father.

“Oh come on. You guys have been dating what? A month? I’d rather have you here in a bed with him than splattered all over the highway.”

“Gruesome!” Miranda laughed.

“Her father lowered his voice a tad and raised his eyebrows. “I have a really good feeling about this guy. You hang onto him, OK?”

“I plan to, Dad. If it’s up to me, I plan to.”

The old, cab-over in the garage was so cold they could see their breath puffing out in small clouds, but they climbed onto the bed with the blankets. Heaping them into a pile, they burrowed in and pulled them above their heads, leaving only a small space for fresh air.

Miranda felt like a little girl again, hiding in a blanket fort. She snuggled against Mike’s ribcage and shivered deliciously.

“We are as snug as two bugs in a rug,” he said.

“Two peas in a pod.”

“Two ships in a shape.”

“That’s not a metaphor,” Miranda protested, giggling. “You made that one up.”

“Are you warm yet?” he asked.

“No. Are you?”

“Not quite. I think kissing would help.”

She turned to face him and brought her lips to his. Five minutes later they had all the heat they needed.

 

They slept long and deep in the quiet of the garage, away from the morning pandemonium in the house. Sometime after nine, Miranda awoke with a start, heart pounding from a dream she could not remember. Mike opened his eyes and stretched.

“Time to get up, beautiful?”

“Way past, I think,” she said, groaning and laying down again, head on his chest. “I hate bad dreams.”

He rubbed her back softly in a circular motion. “What was it about?”

“I don’t know. I can’t remember. It just made me feel all…anxious.”

He rolled her over and kissed her, holding her, his hand resting gently on her breast. She felt comforted in his embrace and reassured by the gesture and the possessiveness it conveyed. She never thought she’d want to feel owned by someone, but this was so different from Hugh, so many worlds away from how small and insignificant he made her feel.

“Mike,” she whispered.

“What?”

“I think I love you.”

“What a coincidence,” he said, softly. “I know I love you.”

A gentle warmth spread through her chest as he kissed her again and his hands moved down her soft curves, resting on the crease between her thigh and the curve of her buttocks. He sighed deeply and she felt his desire echo her own.

“Got time for a quickie?” he asked. Miranda groaned and pushed him away.

“I wish. I really do. But I think I need to get inside; see how things are going.”

“Rain check?”

“Definitely.”

She took a deep breath and brutally threw the covers back, letting out a squeak as the chill hit her skin. They hurried to sort out clothing, pulling on pants and shirts before wrapping up in the blankets and heading out of the camper.

The kitchen was quiet as they entered but looked as though it had played host to a gang of marauding gypsy freeloaders. The china had been put away but plates dripping with syrup and bowls holding a few soggy Froot Loops now covered the counters and filled the sink. On the griddle were two aging pancakes, edges slowly curling upward.

“Awesome; pancakes!” Mike exclaimed, undaunted by their appearance. He grabbed one, put it on a plate, slathered it with butter and turned to Miranda.

“Want the other one, babe?”

“Not big on pancakes,” Miranda said.

He took the other, as well, and slapped it on top of the first. Miranda peered into the living room but it was empty and the house was quiet. Joel entered, huddled over his coffee and looking three shades of exhausted.

“Hey Joel. Where is everybody?”

“I chased the kids outside to play for a while,” he said. “I couldn’t take the noise anymore. They’re on the driveway, playing with that remote controlled Jeep. Mom and Dad are still asleep, and Luke ran to the store for milk. Baby’s sleeping. I’m holding down the fort.”

“You should have gotten me up,” Miranda said, feeling guilty.

“Hey, none of us was about to go out there,” Joel said. “We figured you guys would come in when you were, uh, ready.”

“Well, I’m just saying.” she said. “So Noah’s been OK?”

“Ate three pancakes and ran after his cousins,” Joel said. “He’s having fun; doesn’t miss you at all.”

Miranda still felt gravely unsettled, and she got up to go outside just as a tumult of children entered the front door, all shouting at once.

“Aunt Miranda? Can you please help me get my shoes off?”

Miranda bent to untie the shoelaces for one of her small nieces as a nephew asked her if he could please have some juice and a third pled to have his new DVD unwrapped. Filling the cup and wrestling with the stubborn plastic of the movie, she searched the group for Noah but didn’t see him.

“Did Noah come in with you?” She hollered at her oldest nephew across the room.

“Huh? No, he’s still outside. The jeep controller died. I need batteries. I told him he could roll it around until I got back.” He pried open the cover to his RC controller and rummaged through the cabinets. “Hey, Aunt Miranda, do you know if Grandma has any batteries?”

“Check in her desk drawer,” she said, heading for the front door. She stepped into the chilly morning air and stopped abruptly, staring.

Noah was alone on the driveway, smiling happily as the small Jeep whizzed around and through his legs, popping wheelies and spinning in circles. He watched as it went, small hands clasped behind his back. The toy crossed the sidewalk and shot along the street, flipping over and racing back towards him, where it came to an abrupt stop at his feet.

He picked it up and chortled.

“Noah?” Miranda said, feeling shaky. Turning towards her, he grinned broadly.

“Mama! I can make the car go. I don’t even need a ‘troller.”

“Yes, baby. I see that. How did you do that?”

“I just think about it. I was pushing it with my hand but it wasn’t very fun. So I started pushing it with my brain. And it went. Wanna see again?”

She nodded, fascinated and alarmed in equal measure. The vehicle gathered speed and sped towards her, turning rapid circles around her feet but she kept her eyes on Noah. He stood with his head cocked to one side, frowning slightly with concentration, and the car raced back to him. He picked it up again.

“Isn’t it cool? I can’t wait to show the cousins.” He smiled.

Miranda gently took the vehicle from his hand and knelt in front of him. “Honey, you can’t show the cousins. You can’t show anybody, not even Grandma and Grandpa. It’s another thing we have to keep a secret. Remember? Like knowing things. This is even more important, Noah. You can’t let anybody know you can do these things, OK?”

“Not even Mike?”

“Not even Mike.”

His lower lip trembled a little and she wrapped him in a hug.

“I know it’s hard. It’s such a great trick, baby. Such a really wonderful thing to be able to do. But you know nobody else can do it, right? Just you. And that makes you really, really special.”

“Like ET,” he said, resting his head on her shoulder and sighing.

“You just have to trust me. Let’s keep it a secret. Just between you and me. Can you do that? Can you keep it a secret?”

He nodded slowly.

“I won’t tell.”

“Maybe someday we can tell Grandma and Grandpa. Maybe someday, Mike. But for now, it’s our secret. We’ll know when it’s safe to share. But not today.”

“Not today,” he repeated.

 

~Fifteen~

Mike was a carpenter who made cabinets and chairs and tables and bookcases, mostly, but he also made guitars and, once, a kayak. Mike’s brother Jack was an electrician and a plumber, and together they renovated sad and neglected structures. They lived together in a Craftsman-style bungalow that had been woefully neglected over the years. They were slowly restoring it to aesthetic health.

Noah loved Mike’s workshop; it was filled with the smell of wood and the excitement of projects coming to life. The tools held endless fascination for him. Mike took a chunk of oak from his backyard and showed Noah how to hammer nails into it, starting twenty of them for him.

Noah thought there was nothing more satisfying than hitting their flat heads hard enough to drive them further into the wood, watching them sink down until they were flush with the surface. He bent a few — a lot, really – but Mike told him that was part of being a carpenter.

Mama and Noah spent many weekends at Mike and Jack’s house. Mama would sit in an old leather desk chair he bought at an auction and they would talk while Mike worked. Noah mostly hammered. When he tired of the stump, he played with scraps of wood that Mike had cut into blocks for him, or took half-full cans of paint and made pictures on leftover plywood. There was always something to do.

Mike was making Mama a rocking chair. Slowly the pieces were assembled and the frame took shape. Mike let him sand each slat and runner smooth, scrubbing with the sandpaper until his small arms tired and he would curl up in Mama’s lap and watch Mike work instead. Mike never got tired of working and talking and telling stories, and Mama and Noah never got tired of listening.

“When I was a kid, we had this three-wheeler and me and my brother, we were crazy on that thing. It’s a wonder I’m still alive at all. See this scar?” He pointed to a small white line on his forehead. “I got this after we tried to take a jump over a creek bed one day.”

“Ouch.” Mama said. “I wondered about that. Thought maybe you got it rescuing a fair damsel from a dragon.”

“Or that.” Mike said, winking. “It might have been that. We were daredevils, though. That three-wheeler was the beginning of my love affair with speed machines like Susie, though.”

Susie was Mike’s motorcycle—a sleek orange Suzuki that reminded Noah of a tiger crouching in the corner of the shop where she was parked. Mike bought helmets for Mama and Noah. He took Noah on slow trips around the block and took Mama on faster trips. Noah sat in front of Mike on the machine and thrilled to the feel of the wind in his face and the engine rumbling beneath him.

“I’m going to have a motorcycle someday,” he told Mike confidentially. “But don’t tell Mama. She’ll worry.”

“Your secret is safe with me.” Mike whispered. “Can you keep a secret for me, too?”

Noah nodded, and Mike showed him a tiny black box. When he cracked it open, the ring inside sparkled and danced in the light.

“It’s for your mama.” Mike said. “I want to marry her, buddy. Is that okay with you?”

Noah nodded again, and smiled. He could think of nothing he would like better. Mike was happy and gave him a high-five.

“Thanks, Noah. I sure hope she says yes.”

Noah knew she would, and told him so.

 

One day Mike took Mama and Noah to look at their latest project; a dilapidated red brick ranch house in an up-and-coming neighborhood.

Jack walked them through, describing what they planned to do. It seemed insurmountable; the dropped ceilings sagged, the walls were dingy and discolored and the carpet seemed ready to sprout mushrooms. In the kitchen, the avocado-colored appliances were relics from the Ford administration, and the pressboard cabinets hung haphazardly on the walls.

“Just wait til you see it when we’re done, though.” John said. “You won’t believe it.”

And they hardly did. When they went back, four months later, the walls were bright and the floors gleamed with maple and polished tile. The kitchen was updated with new cupboards, stainless steel appliances and granite counters. There was no longer a damp smell in the air. Mike stood in the living room and faced Mama.

“Miranda,” he began, his voice shaking a little. “I was just like this old house when you came along. I didn’t think I’d ever find somebody who cared. But then there was you, baby. I’m born again and it’s all because of you. I want you in my life, forever.”

He pulled out the ring and got down on one knee. Mama gasped and put her hand over her mouth, nodding and saying yes, Mike, yes, and he put the ring on her finger.

Jack began to applaud and Noah joined in, grinning. Mama pulled Mike to his feet and he hugged her, lifting her off the ground and spinning her around once. They lifted Noah and put him between them, squishing him in a hug sandwich, and then they were both crying happy tears while Noah giggled.

He felt good and warm all over, which made the cold prickle of fear that suddenly raced down his spine all the more disturbing.

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