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