Noah’s hand tugged at Miranda and she paused in her discussion to turn her attention to her small son.
“Yes, my darling?”
“Mama, dis dorty.” Holding the rock aloft, he pressed it into her palm.
“Yes it sure is dirty.”
She took the treasure and smiled down at his radiant face. “Do I need to clean it off? Do you want to keep it?”
“Yes,” he said, before turning once again to join the small group of children scrambling over the playground in their suburban Tulsa neighborhood.
“What were you saying, Brenda?” Miranda asked, adding the chunk of concrete to the acorn hats and fall leaves in her pocket as she turned back to Noah’s teacher.
“I was saying that the preschool is having a Christmas party and I was hoping you would bring some brownies or something.”
“Of course; I would be happy to. I have the perfect recipe.”
“Excellent! Not that I’ll be eating any. I’ve got to keep off these ten pounds I’ve lost, you know!”
Miranda knew. It was all Brenda had talked about for the last two hours.
“I wish you’d share your secret,” Miranda said. She smiled. “I’ve got a few to lose myself.” She patted her hips.
“Oh please,” Brenda said. “You’re tiny! No one would even guess you had a kid. But it’s good you stopped at one. After three, everything goes to hell.” She sighed and shrugged. “I’m just so damn busy.”
“I sure do appreciate you, Brenda,” Miranda offered. “I don’t know what I’d do without the deal you gave me on tuition; so many preschools are raising prices all over the place.” She stood up and sighed. “I think Noah and I are done. My pockets can’t take much more treasure.”
As if on cue, Noah appeared at the bottom of the small plastic tube slide and ran to her when she beckoned.
“Time to go, my sweet.”
“How I love that!” Brenda exclaimed. “Miranda, honestly, what have you done to create such an obedient child? Four years old and he does whatever you say. Mark won’t do anything for me without a battle. Come over here, Noah, and give Ms. Brenda a hug, will you?”
Clasped in her arms, Noah smiled and planted a wet kiss on her cheek.
“Miss Bwenda, you gonna die,” he said with a rather alarming sweetness.
“Noah!” Miranda gasped.
“Die?” Brenda laughed, both at the words lisped so tenderly and at Miranda’s shock. “Not anytime soon, I hope!”
“’morrow,” he countered soberly.
“Noah!” Miranda said again, this time sharp enough to be a scold. “I’m so sorry, Brenda; I can’t imagine where he picked something like that up.”
“Oh, dear, don’t give it a second thought,” Brenda assured her. “I’ve had three, remember? They come out with some doozies sometimes.”
“Still…” Miranda took Noah in her arms, her brow furrowed. “Noah, that’s not a nice thing to say to people.”
“I’m sure to die someday, right, Noah?” Brenda asked in a good-natured tone.
“’morrow,” he repeated.
“All right, that’s it. We’re leaving.” Miranda said.
She offered apologies again and her friend once again brushed them off, although her own brow had taken on a wrinkle or two at this point.
Noah sang a preschool tune as they walked home in the deepening dusk, but his mother hardly heard him over the pounding of her heart. This was not the first unusual occurrence with Noah, and she was far more frightened than amused by the things that had been happening.
The dog. First there was the dog. Six months previous, she was outside putting a few petunias in the small patch of earth in front of her duplex while Noah happily covered himself with dirt. There was no way of knowing, with her back to the gate, that a large black behemoth of a retriever made its way into the yard until she heard the small gasp of “Goggy!” from Noah. She turned to see him exploring its cavernous mouth with one small hand as he hung on its neck.
Pulling him away in a panic, she shooed the animal with no success. It sat placidly and panted up at her, apathetically watching her nervous motions.
“Goggy!” Noah cried. “Me want Goggy!”
The dog certainly seemed harmless, but with no collar, Miranda was inclined to view it as a giant flea-carrier at the very least.
Pushing it gently with one knee, she attempted to direct it out the gate, but succeeded only in making it rise on its back legs, almost knocking her down as it excitedly licked both her face and Noah’s.
“Sit! Sit!” she yelled, to which the beast instantly responded.
“You’ve been given some manners, anyway,” she muttered. Perplexed, she marched toward the house, followed closely by the dog. She went inside and shut the door soundly in its face and left Noah crying at the window as she pulled out her phone to call the pound.
After a brief but enlightening conversation with the girl at the local shelter, who was about as dull as an oyster, she hung up and let out a huge sigh.
Apparently the pound was full. Not only that, but they could only keep the dog for five days before dispatching it to the great beyond.
Gazing out the window at the creature laying patiently on the door mat, she knew she couldn’t bring herself to send it to such an uncertain fate; she would have to take matters into her own hands.
Knocking on nearby doors produced nothing. No one had lost a dog or knew of anyone who had. Snapping a picture with her phone, she sent a lost dog ad to the newspaper and prayed for a response.
Meanwhile, Noah was besotted. Under her close supervision, she allowed him to pat the “goggy” all he wanted, and was impressed with the dog’s patience. He greeted every encounter with her son as the best part of his day.
“Goggy Leo,” Noah said, two days later. “Wabbit.”
“What, honey?” Miranda asked, confused. “Rabbit?”
“Wabbit wun,” Noah answered. “Leo chase it.”
No subsequent questioning yielded anything more enlightening, so she shrugged it off as simple baby talk. Each night she fed the dog leftovers and prayed that in the morning it would find its way back out the gate and disappear from her life, which in no way had included an 80 pound beast any time sooner than never.
One morning, a week after the animal appeared, she was awakened by her phone and answered groggily. The voice on the other end talked more rapidly than she could decipher. After three or more repetitions, she finally realized that it was the dog’s owner, explaining that they had, a week ago, lost their beloved pet Leo—a black lab—when he slipped his collar chasing a rabbit as they picnicked at a nearby park. In a haze of confusion and astonishment, Miranda said that yes, they could certainly come and pick him up at their earliest possible convenience.
How Noah knew the dog’s name was Leo, or how he knew the details of its situation, was a mystery to which no amount of brain-bending on Miranda’s part could explain. Deciding Noah had watched, at some point, a kids’ program featuring a large black dog named Leo, she let it go.
Until the obit. A chill went down her spine as she remembered.
As she sat on the couch one morning reading the Tulsa World, Noah climbed beside her, sucking contentedly on his thumb and trailing his blanket. She was thick in the middle of a particularly engrossing Dear Abby letter, when Noah pointed to the obituary section with one soggy finger and said “’Bruvvers get owie.”
“What is it, darling?” she said absently, still puzzling over the letter and Abby’s subsequent advice.
“Bruvvers. Too hot. Don’t touch,” he repeated, putting the thumb back in his mouth.
Miranda noticed there were two obituaries side by side, outlining the lives of twin brothers who recently perished in a house fire. Her heart began to race.
Slamming the paper to the coffee table, she stared at her little boy, who was looking at her from beneath sleepy eyelids. He seemed unconcerned by the information he had just gleaned, but Miranda was seriously alarmed. How could he have known such a thing? Was he a prodigy; had he learned to read without her knowing? Picking up the paper, she pointed to a few words and asked him what they were. He frowned at her, uncomprehending.
What was he going to come out with next?
Now, walking home with Noah in hand, she knew the answer. Brenda was a daycare provider and heard small children say just about everything imaginable, so perhaps she was as unbothered by Noah’s words as she appeared. Miranda, however, was deeply uneasy, and would remain so until the sun went down tomorrow evening with Brenda still very much alive.
“Miss Brenda is very healthy, Noah,” she said, looking down at the small boy holding her hand. “Miss Brenda is going to live a nice long life and die at a ripe old age.”
“Miss Bwenda…” he began thoughtfully, and Miranda held her breath. “Miss Bwenda go boom.”
Dear God, she thought. Dear God don’t let this happen.
And yet it did happen. The call came the following afternoon from another daycare teacher. Miranda felt as though she might be sick before the words even came. Brenda…stringing Christmas lights…fell off the ladder…broken neck.
Miranda sank to the floor and woodenly responded that yes, she understood the daycare would be closed for a few days. She put her face in her hands, heard ringing in her ears, and knew she was going to faint. Noah’s small hand on her shoulder brought her back to the present and she swallowed hard.
“Mommy awright?” he asked.
“Mommy’s all right.”
She nodded, although what she desperately wanted at the moment was a good stiff drink. She clutched Noah and put her face in his neck, breathing in his warm little boy smell, a combination of grape scented baby soap and sweat. He didn’t struggle to be released, but stood patiently until she took one more deep breath and looked at him.
“Mommy’s OK. Noah, be a good boy and go play, all right? Mommy just needs a minute to think.”
As he ran into the living room, Miranda checked the time. It was 3:12pm. Surely it was not too early. This was a special occasion. Oh so special, she thought morbidly as she uncapped the bottle of whisky she kept above the refrigerator.
My kid is telepathic or telekinetic or some fucking thing. Special. Oh so special.
She poured several glugs into a juice glass and drank it with a trembling hand, feeling somewhat comforted, or at least distracted, by the warmth it brought to her chest.
Finishing the glass, she started to pour another but resisted. What she needed was company. Somebody to distract her. Too much alone time equaled too much thinking time, and she did not want to think right now. Maybe shopping would help. She picked up the phone to call a friend.
“What’s the matter, hon? You seem really–distracted.”
Nancy shifted the weight of her purchases from one hand to the other and pulled her coat collar up around her neck. The outlet mall was teeming with Christmas shoppers bustling from store to store in search of holiday treasures. “You haven’t bought a thing, but you told me you really needed to go shopping. What’s up with that?”
Miranda sighed and fidgeted with the zipper on her purse. Nancy was her oldest friend and childhood confidante, but Miranda wasn’t sure she could handle the idea that Noah was psychic. Miranda wasn’t sure she could handle it, herself. Maybe she was imagining it all, anyway. Maybe it was all just a series of weird coincidences.
“I’m sorry, Nance,” she said finally. “I’m just—worried about Noah. About how he’ll take the news that Brenda died.”
Nancy put her arm around her friend’s shoulders as they walked. “You know I know next to zero about kids. I’m not sure how much help I’ll be for you. How old is he now?”
“Four,” she repeated thoughtfully. “You know, I don’t think I remember a single damn thing from when I was four. Do you?”
“So there you go,” Nancy said. “He’ll be sad for a little while but he’s not going to remember it. He won’t be permanently scarred by it. He’ll probably be more curious about his new teacher than anything else.”
“Yeah, maybe. Maybe I’m the one more scarred by her death. I mean, seriously. She was so young.”
“It’s always hard when somebody you know dies. My grandmother passing still feels weird and it’s been two years. But you’ll feel better in a few weeks, I promise. You’d feel better now if you bought something.” She smiled. “It ain’t called retail therapy for nothing!”
“Right.” Miranda nodded. “Right. Let’s go into Eddie Bauer. I want to look at sweaters. Maybe find one for my dad. I don’t have anything for him yet.”
Inside, Christmas music was playing but it sounded discordant to Miranda. She tried to hum along as she looked over the sweaters on the tables in the men’s section but stopped when she noticed a young boy staring at her. He was bigger than Noah and was hanging onto the hand of an older woman who might have been his grandmother. His left hand was held close to his mouth as he sucked his two middle fingers. Suddenly the woman looked down at him and gave his arm a small jerk.
“Donald! Donnie, don’t suck your fingers. You’re almost five years old. Only babies suck their fingers.”
Chastised, the little boy extracted the offensive digits and wiped them on his coat.
Miranda found Nancy rifling through the sale racks at the back of the store.
“Nancy, do you think I should make Noah quit sucking his thumb? Do you think he’s too old to be doing that?”
“Hon, once again you are asking the wrong person,” Nancy said. “What do I know about child development? I will tell you this, though. Four is hardly too old to be doing anything at all, I think. He’s still just a baby! And heck, you know I sucked my thumb til I was ten and it didn’t do me any harm. Although, yes, I think ten really is too old. I was a particularly stubborn child. Drove my folks nuts.”
“I don’t know,” Miranda said. “It really does seem like just yesterday he was a baby. And now he’s going to preschool and learning so much. He comes back exhausted. So I just let him have his blankie and thumb. It doesn’t seem too much for him to ask.”
“Your kid is a weirdo. It’s official,” Nancy said, deadpan.
“Stop.” Miranda laughed. “OK, I’ll quit bugging you about him. I’m sorry.”
If only it were that easy.