Month: June 2016

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.

Noah Knows Chapters 7 – 10

Chapters 1 & 2 here
Chapters 3 & 4 here
Chapters 5 & 6  here

 

~Seven~

Noah knew things. Noah knows mama would sing to him when he would tell her things. Noah knows Noah knows. He liked how it sounded and he would laugh and sing it along with her.

Most of the time they were little things, like how the phone was about to ring or what ad was coming up on the television, but sometimes they were big. He didn’t like knowing the big things; the big things were not funny and mama never sang Noah knows to him about them. Mostly she would just hug him and rock him in her lap when he told her because the big things were sad and scary and there was nothing either of them could do about them.

She cried when he told her about the baby squirrel. She cried more than he did, and he wasn’t sure why because she once said squirrels were just rats with bushy tails. But she cried a lot and rocked him and didn’t let him go until he asked if he could please go play. Mama was funny sometimes. He didn’t know much about her. He tried a little bit once, a tiny bit because he was curious. He pushed a little, but nothing happened. She was closed up to him, and he was glad.

Some people were closed up. For those who weren’t, he didn’t try to find stuff out. Usually it just happened that he knew it, like it dropped into his head from a long way away. Other times, if he was really curious, he pushed with his mind and things dropped. Mama told him one day that this was a very bad thing to do and he should never do it, that it was like peeking through a hole in the bathroom door; it was rude, and so he didn’t do it after that.

But he couldn’t help the things that dropped by themselves.

He knew, for instance, that his preschool teacher had a baby that died when it was not even born. He knew that even though she had three other children, she thought about that baby all the time and sometimes still cried because of it. She named the baby Ruby Lee but hadn’t told anybody that it had a name. Grown-ups were really funny, but really interesting too. The kids in his class didn’t have much going on in their minds except how much they hated peas and didn’t understand math and stuff like that. Grown-ups were way more interesting.

But he didn’t push anymore because Mama said it was bad, and he believed her.

School was hard for him because the things that dropped got really distracting sometimes. Sometimes the stuff that came into his head was so noisy that he couldn’t hear his teacher telling him it was lunchtime or where to put his coat. He couldn’t tell her what was really happening; Mama told him he must never tell anyone because nobody would believe him and they would call him a liar but he thought there was probably an even better reason than that.

One night, he watched the movie “E.T.” Mama was nervous that he might be scared but he wasn’t scared at all, not even a little bit, until the part where the grown-ups take E.T. away from Elliot. They strapped E.T. to a table and Noah knew then they were going to cut him up, just chop him into little pieces to try to find out how he could fly and do magic. He understood that adults always think that’s the best way to figure out magic; by chopping the thing up and looking inside it. It was stupid and they ruined everything but they couldn’t help it, just like a cat needed to kill squirrels.

It was weird but he knew they would do the same to him; Mama didn’t even have to say it.

 

~Eight~

Mr. McGraw bought a Tracker bass boat with a cherry red diamond-coat finish, and he posted photographs of it all around his office and spoke of it as “her” and “she” to anyone who would listen. He also bought a bigger hat and the largest belt buckle Miranda had ever seen, although only half of it showed, peeking out from under his indomitable gut.

“I swear to God, it’s the size of a dinner plate,” she said to her mother, Lucy, stopping in to discuss Christmas dinner plans and Noah’s wish list.

“Don’t swear to God, Miranda,” Her mother frowned.

“Sorry, Mom. But you’ve got to come in sometime and see what I’m talking about. McGraw is getting so weird and it’s not just the boat and the belt buckle. His whole demeanor has changed; he tries to get every woman who comes into the place to go for a ride sometime on his boat. Like it’s a freaking yacht and he’s the prince of Arabia!”

“Well, let the man have a little fun, dear. He could probably use some female companionship.”

“Well, sure,” Miranda said. “But I race the other girls to get done each night so I don’t have to be alone with him, or Joanie either, for that matter. She’s really weird, too. I think they’re dating or something; they are always whispering together in his office. He used to be a harmless old guy, but now he’s so…”

“Do you think he’s dangerous?” Lucy furrowed her brow.

“I guess not,” Miranda sighed. “I’m fairly sure he’s just—obsessed. But he’s a big guy and can be kind of formidable. He plays every lottery there is now, too, and all the horse races. He’s decided he’s on a roll but he hasn’t won anything since. I wish he’d win millions and retire. At least then he’d stop thinking Noah is the key to everything.”

“Does he? Still?”

“He asks about him all the time, like he’s hoping I’ll let him pick winners for him at the races.”

“Maybe you should lodge a complaint? Like a harassment thing?”

“He’s not harassing anybody…” Miranda shifted uneasily as she recalled the encounter in her foyer. “At any rate, Joanie likes the attention. I hope they are dating. Maybe if she had sex once in a while it would lighten her up a little. She gives me the death glare all day long.”

“I’m sorry, honey,” Lucy said, grimacing. “Joanie seems kind of dangerous, from what you’ve told me. I don’t like the idea of you being alone with her for sure.”

“Let’s talk about something nice now. Sorry I brought all that up; Christmas dinner is a way more enjoyable topic.”

“Still, I don’t like to think about you being in any danger,” her mother said. “It was bad enough with you on your own after Hugh’s trial. Your father and I sure enjoyed having you and Noah here. Are you doing all right in that little duplex? Is it safe?”

“I love it, mom. I know you enjoy having the house to yourselves again. We’re fine. I have a good job and I like being independent.”

“I just wish you got more out of that bastard.”

“Me too,” Miranda said.

“Honestly, if I knew he pushed you into signing a pre-nup I would have insisted that you not marry him at all. I would have thrown a fit.”

“And I would have married him anyway. What did I know? I was a ditzy, starry eyed cheerleader. I liked his attention. Everybody thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. Even you and dad.”

“He had us all fooled,” her mother said, sadly. “And at least we have our sweet Noah, don’t we? So there’s always a silver lining. But if that bastard ever comes near you again–”

“Mom, don’t get all worked up. Hugh’s in prison, and hopefully he’ll stay there for good. I’m just glad we were able to get enough from the civil suit for Noah’s future. My job will get us through until he’s eighteen and can decide what he wants to do with it.”

Her father came into the room and kissed her on the temple. “We really miss you, sugar. I just had a nice chat with Noah in the living room. He’s building a tower with those new blocks you bought, Lucy. He says I’m going to die.” He laughed heartily.

“He did? I’m so sorry Dad. It’s a weird phase he’s going through.”

“Don’t worry one moment. Lord knows that day is coming.”

“Not any time soon, I hope,” Lucy said.

“Did he say when, exactly?” Miranda asked. Her mouth was dry.

“No, just that it was going to happen. What’s wrong, Miranda? You look pale.”

“I’m fine. It’s been an odd couple of weeks. He keeps saying that to people. I don’t like it.”

“Just a phase, like you said, dear,” Lucy said, pouring her daughter a glass of wine. “Children come out with all kinds of strange things. You used to tell people they were pregnant, do you remember that?”

“What? No. I don’t remember that at all. How old was I?”

“Probably the same age as Noah. A little younger. About three I think. A few times you were right and they really were pregnant and they didn’t know it, or they had just found out. Made us wonder if you had some special gift for a while.” Lucy and Dale looked at each other and laughed.

“But I wasn’t always right? Not always?”

“Some of them we didn’t even know; just people on the street. Some were friends and out of all of them a few really were pregnant. We figured you heard us talking about it. Actually, those that weren’t pregnant at the time–” Lucy thought for a moment. “Yes, I think they all did go on to have children, eventually. Doesn’t really make you Nostradamus, does it?”

“Of course not.”

Miranda laughed nervously and took several mouthfuls of wine.

“That’s not Kool-Aid, you know.”

Miranda wiped her lips with a napkin and tried to breathe easy. Her hands would not stop shaking.

“Was there anything else? Or anybody else in the family who did stuff like that?”

“Your grandmother—my mother—always said that her mother was something of a clairvoyant. Made a hobby out of reading people’s tea leaves and palms and things like that. Sometimes people would come from miles away to hear what she had to say. And mother herself—you know this—was always uncanny when it came to the races. Remember how she won ten thousand dollars?”

“I do remember,” Miranda said, softly. “I had forgotten, but now I remember.”

They were on summer vacation in her mother’s hometown of Texarkana. The women went to the horse races in Shreveport. When they came sweeping into the house later that evening the tumult of voices brought all the men and children together in a hurry. Eventually the details were sorted out. The story of how Louise picked the winning trifecta and got so excited she screamed and her false teeth shot out of her mouth had become a thing of family legend.

“Your grandmother picked up a little bit of a gambling habit after that,” her mother said. We were a little worried about her because she won so much we didn’t think we could convince her to stop. One day she just up and quit on her own, though. Said she was scared of the money. It was upsetting her life. I can’t imagine being upset by money.”

“Funny,” Miranda said, unsmiling.

“So where’s the clairvoyant in you, babe?” Dale asked, pulling Lucy in for a kiss. “I haven’t noticed you winning any lotteries lately.”

“But I always know what you’re thinking,” Lucy exclaimed, patting her husband on the cheek.

“Please, not right here in front of me,” Miranda groaned.

“Don’t let Noah’s baby talk worry you,” her mother said. “If he has a touch of the Robinson clairvoyance it surely won’t be enough to plan a trip to Vegas. Pretty watered down by now, I think.”

Oh, but what you don’t know! Miranda thought.

 

~Nine~

That night Miranda dreamt she was standing in the rain on a street corner lit by one very yellow and flickering street lamp. The rain was torrential; the drops threw themselves down from heaven like so many tiny kamikaze pilots, violently pelting her flimsy umbrella. She gripped Noah’s hand, hard, fearing she would lose him in the deluge.

Across the street, barely visible through the sheets of water, there was an enormous dark form. Though she could not make out its shape, the sight of it filled her with fear; she tried to turn and run but she was rooted on the spot.

She looked anxiously at her son and found him gazing up at her, his face a halo of serenity but for his small mouth, which had been sewn shut with coarse twine in large, ungainly stitches. She tried to scream but no sound came out, tried to gather him into her arms and sob but could not move an inch.

Don’t be afraid, Mama. Noah said, though his lips couldn’t part to make a sound. Don’t be afraid. He spoke it straight from his mind to hers. But Miranda was afraid, deathly afraid. As she looked up she saw that the object had moved closer and was now in the middle of the street, and though she still could not discern its form she thought it might be a man and grew even more terrified. It was at least twelve feet tall and vaguely rectangular, like a monolithic statue from a savage island, and Miranda began to cry from fear and frustration.

Mama, Daddy is coming, Noah said, nodding down the street, as at that moment a classic old Camaro shot through the drenching rain and skidded to a halt in front of them, blocking the approach of the dark shape.

“Get in,” Dean shouted, as the door popped open. Suddenly released from her paralysis, she clambered into the seat with Noah. There was a roar of rage from all around them as he hit the gas and peeled out, sending up plumes of water from the back tires, and the whole car shook as though something enormous had struck it.

“What the hell was that?” she sobbed, giving voice to all her fears at once.

“Just the future,” Dean said.

Miranda awoke damp with sweat, sheets sticking to her as the cold rays of the December morning stole through her blinds.

Staggering up, she hurried into the silvery darkness of Noah’s room where he lay, impossibly small in his twin bed. She snapped on the bedside lamp and almost cried with relief when she saw his tiny mouth, puckered with consternation at the sudden light, completely free of twine.

“Is it schooltime, Mama?” he asked, his voice grumbly.

“No, honey. No. I’m sorry. It’s Saturday. Go back to sleep now.” She turned the light off and climbed into the bed with him, spooning her body around his small form and pulling him into her chest. She wished she could return him to the womb, surround him with her own flesh and blood where he could come to no harm.

Just the future, Dean said. She could see him in her mind’s eye as clearly as her own face in a mirror. He looked radiant as ever, glowing with good health, and not phantasmal in the slightest. She knew that his appearance in her dream had something to do with the conversation she had earlier with her parents, but that did not make it any less real. His eyes had rested upon her and Noah with longing and sorrow, as they always did in her dreams, and a great pang of loneliness settled over her.

 

~Ten~

“You’ve got commitment issues, hon.”

Miranda and Nancy were arguing. Sitting in the mall food court, resting their shop-weary feet and waiting on Hannah, another childhood friend, they heatedly discussed Miranda’s sex life.

“Maybe I do. Who the hell could blame me?”

“Seriously. I know Hugh was a bad burn, but come on! You’ve had how many one night stands now? And all of them your fault, you know.”

“My fault? My fault how?”

“I mean, they didn’t have to be one night stands. You’re the one who decided that. Every one of those guys would have gone out with you again, but you never call anybody back. I’m worried about you, hon.”

“Hey, I use protection,” Miranda said defensively.

“That’s not what I’m worried about.” Nancy sighed. “Although I’m glad to hear it.”

“None of those guys was worth a call back.”

“And you’re basing this on what kind of evidence? You didn’t even give them a chance.”

“Because they all left before morning, that’s why. I want a guy who sticks around, you know, maybe even offers to make me breakfast, dammit. Not some loser who can’t stand to look at me in the bright light of day. They might leave me their numbers but I have my standards.”

“Honey,” Nancy said, taking Miranda’s hand in hers. “I’m just asking you to think about it. Maybe it’s time to get some counseling. Therapy might make you feel better; make you ready to take a chance on somebody.”

“I guess,” Miranda said reluctantly. “You have a point.”

Hannah walked up then, arms full of bags. “Looks like we’re talking about something serious?”

“My love life,” Miranda said. “Apparently I have commitment issues.”

“But you do, Randy. You do.”

“Ugh. Don’t call me that. It was a good nickname when I was a kid, but now it sounds almost perverted.”

Hannah laughed. “I see what you mean. You don’t have any problem getting men, just keeping them.”

“I’m just a little gun-shy, I guess.”

“Understandable. I would be too. We’re going out tonight; would you come with us? We’re going to the Red Dirt Dance Hall for a Christmas party; it’s going to be loads of fun. Maybe your dream guy will be there. You know, the one you actually call back?”

“I don’t know, guys.” Miranda felt suddenly weary. “I’m really tired. Haven’t been sleeping well. Had a doozy of a nightmare last night. Maybe I should pass.”

“Well, shoot,” Nancy said. “I was going to tell you there’s a guy Tom knows who’s coming. He’s really nice, Miranda. Really. We were going to introduce you. Please come. If you don’t like him, you can leave.”

“Really? Just leave, immediately?”

“Yes. We won’t hold it against you.” Hannah nodded in agreement.

“All right then. I’ll try.”

 

The Red Dirt Dance Hall, within walking distance from Miranda’s duplex, was crowded and noisy with the energy of a live band. She felt the eyes of several men upon her as she walked in, and that made her happy.

She had been especially careful with her makeup, picking out colors that made her large eyes even more emphatic, arching her brows and hollowing out her cheekbones. She had put her thick red hair up in a loose bun with just enough tendrils hanging down to be enticing. Her jeans were tight and her shirt was form fitting and her cowboy boots were suddenly itching to two-step. The fatigue fell away as she heard the live band and she was glad she had come. All the crazy in her life had earned her this moment, and she was going to make the most of every minute.

She claimed a spot at the bar by draping her coat over the back of a chair, slid herself up, and ordered a bourbon on the rocks. She was flanked on one side by a couple who were very into each other, possibly a first or second date, and on the other by a tall man who seemed to be alone. He gave her an appraising look as she leaned onto the bar to take a long slug on her drink, and she returned it in kind.

He was almost ridiculously good looking, with thick blond waves covering his head and blue eyes that wrinkled at the corners from plenty of laughter. He smiled and she saw that he was blessed with dimples, too.

“You here all alone?” he shouted above the music.

“Waiting for friends,” she said. “You?”

“Same. Want to dance while we wait?”

Nice and friendly. And there were those dimples again. She drained her drink, feeling warm all the way down to her toes, and nodded.

His name was Mike, and he spun her around the dance floor through three songs until she was breathless and begged to go back to the bar. His hand was large and warm and work-worn as he led her back to their seats, where he ordered for them both.

“You hot?” he laughed, fanning her with his cowboy hat.

“Yes!” she shouted, downing her drink in one go and finding it swiftly replaced with another. The door opened and the burst of cold November night air felt like heaven on her skin. She pressed closer to Mike and pretended to be chilled, and was gratified when he put his arm around her waist.

Nancy and Hannah arrived with their boyfriends, Tom and Joel, and when they located Miranda they wasted no time in spiriting her off to the bathroom for a conference.

“Hon, that’s him!” Nancy said excitedly as soon as the door was shut. “That’s the guy Tom wanted to introduce you to. Isn’t he amazing?”

“He’s the best thing here,” Hannah giggled.

“I’m telling Joel you said that,” Miranda teased, rolling her eyes. “But yeah, he seems really nice. And don’t worry about getting me home. I have a feeling I won’t be alone.”

“Three cheers for not going home alone,” Nancy said, and the six or seven other women in the bathroom cheered with them.

“How about a slow dance?” Mike asked as she returned. She nodded and finished her drink and they went back to the dance floor.

Slow dancing is not a skill that comes naturally to most people, Miranda knew, but he was good at everything, it seemed, and pulled her close, hand pressed against her lower back. She reached up to put her arms around his neck and smiled her most charming smile, which, she had found, was fairly potent. The room was spinning gently and every disturbing thought was successfully drowned out by a combination of alcohol and male attention.

She felt light and happy and cared about nothing at all except this man with the riveting blue eyes whose pelvis was swaying against hers in an intoxicating way.

He bent forward and kissed her, searching her tongue with his. He tasted pleasingly of beer and pretzel salt and she returned the search with one of her own, becoming more breathless by the moment.

Mike let out a contented sigh and smiled at her. “That’s a nice flavor,” he said. “Got any more?”

“Maybe you’ll find out,” she said, rocking her hips against his. “I have all kinds of flavors.”

He spun her away and laughed loudly when she staggered back to him, then dipped her for good measure before planting a kiss on her neck.

She couldn’t imagine a better time, and thought the only danger was in the night ending too soon, going home too early with this man and his dimples, having sex and passing out. She was not yet ready for it to end with the usual cold awakening to slanting sunlight on an empty bed.

She had a good feeling about Mike, for whatever that was worth–she didn’t think he was a closet axe murderer–but he was also a little too eager, and she was planning to stay until the very last call. So she pushed away from him and returned to the bar, feigning fatigue, and he followed her to order more drinks.

This was good, she thought. This was just what she needed. She looked around the room. There were beautiful women everywhere, from tightly toned brunettes to blondes with enormous assets. None of them had a fraction of a clue about the power they wielded. Lonely and bored, even the most beautiful was afraid of being alone. All of them were too anxious to settle, far too ready to hit the deck with any clueless and panting young man.

She would not be that, no. She would stretch this night out; make Mr. Dimples work for it before she took him home.

Only she didn’t. Within a few minutes, when he asked if she’d like to step out for some fresh air, she nodded and that had been the end of that. Home was a mere step or two away it seemed, and they groped each other all the way there, desperation growing by the moment.

After fumbling the door open and throwing twenties at the babysitter (who left in a hurry), they fell onto her bed and Mike proved himself good at everything, indeed. And as they rolled over, exhausted and sated, she smiled to herself and slipped into a blissfully dreamless sleep.

Skip to the End Available on Kindle through Amazon

So I have published my first novel, a contemporary romance called Skip to the End, on Kindle. It should be available for purchase as a paperback within a week. For now, get it for $2.99 and get to reading immediately! You can check out the first couple of chapters by clicking on the “look inside!” button on top of the book image. Here’s the jacket copy:

“Madeline King is twenty-two, independently wealthy, and living a life of luxury on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. She never planned to fall in love but when a family with twelve children vacations on the beach where she lives, her best laid plans come undone. The eldest–good-natured and dependable Reuben–captures her eye, and before long, her heart. But can Madeline, bipolar and prone to flights of fancy, handle a relationship with someone “normal”? Her best friend, the brooding Nick, questions the wisdom of her getting involved, but are his doubts for Madeline’s good, or does he have his own reasons for keeping her away from Reuben?

Skip to the End is a gritty, human tale told from the perspective of one for whom each day is a struggle, but who is learning that life is a journey worth living and love is a risk worth taking. Laced with humor and philosophy, Madeline’s story will resonate with readers who enjoy the unpredictable and quirky.”

Let me know if you read it, and, more importantly, if you like it! And let me just say, I’ll love you forever if you post a nice review. If you don’t feel comfortable writing a review (and not everyone does), then there’s the option of just filling in the *stars* portion of the review process.  It’s fairly simple and takes just a few moments, but would mean the world to me!

Get the book HERE.

Noah Knows, Ch. 5 & 6

Chapters 1 & 2 here
Chapters 3 & 4 here

~Five~

 

The Department of Motor Vehicles is possibly the most depressing place on earth, Miranda thought. The cheap-ass Wal-Mart tinsel strung half-heartedly against the dark-paneled wall did nothing to help and might have even exacerbated the general sense of ennui that hung palpably in the air.

If the zombie apocalypse ever breaks out, she liked to think, it will start here, because everybody I work with is already half zombie.

There was Susan, the plump fifty-something with eyes deadened by painkillers, who popped Tramadol like candy because of a disc issue, Joanie, the middle aged bleached blond who wore braces on her forearms to compensate for the debilitating carpal tunnel that she ceaselessly complained about, and Patricia, the 22-year-old high school dropout who shuffled back and forth all day long from copier to filing cabinet, smacking gum and twirling her stringy brown hair.

And in the midst of them all was Miranda. It was only a matter of time before she joined the ranks of the undead, she thought. Between the fluorescent lights and the smell (decades of old cigarette smoke, printer ink, and stale coffee), she was certain to turn her brain over as well.

It wasn’t that she minded the work. She found the endless stream of humanity that came to get vehicles registered or apply for licenses or transfer titles to be really interesting, even if they weren’t always at their best after standing in line for an hour. She always tried to make it less painful by smiling brightly and making conversation.

She noticed that during the busiest times, men would subtly jockey for position so she could wait on them. Joanie and Susan noticed it too, and it pissed them off, but what did she care? She had phone numbers slipped to her by the flirtiest men, which always made her laugh before placing them into the shredder. The few times she had taken one of them up on a date, it had ended badly. She had a strange suspicion that accepting numbers at the DMV doomed the relationship before it even started.

On the Monday after Brenda died, she had Noah, who sat quietly on the counter as she worked. The daycare would not be open for another two days, and her boss, Mr. Eddie McGraw—a corpulent man who wore a cowboy hat to cover his shiny bald head and who had a slight crush on her—told her it was OK to bring the boy.

Noah was studiously counting a pile of change she gave him as she waited on an old woman who needed to register her brand new Corvette.

“What are you going to do with a Corvette, Mrs. Weinstein?” she asked the woman with a wink. “You gonna go chase down a young hottie?”

“You know it, girlie,” the blue haired woman smiled. “My husband, God rest his soul, left me money and a half to live on and now that I’ve given enough away to sooth my conscience I’m getting something for me! My grandkids will have the coolest grandma in town.”

“They sure will,” Miranda laughed. “But can you fit them in the back seat?”

“Who cares?” she cackled, bringing a smile, even, to Susan’s sour face. As the old woman stumped out, Joanie flipped the closed sign and they all began to shut down their computers and close up their stations.

“Anybody hand you a phone number today?” she said tersely as Miranda set a pile of papers atop the shredder.

“Not today, Joanie. I thought maybe that chick with the pierced nose was going to give me hers, but I guess I was wrong.”

This shut Joanie up.

“Mama, is it time to go home?” asked Noah as he swung his small legs, crashing them into the filing cabinets below. Joanie scowled and shushed him.

“Yes honey, finally time to go home. You were a really good boy today.”

As she swung him down from the counter he gave a small whoop and swung his hands wide, connecting solidly with Joanie’s Big Gulp from the corner Quick Trip. The enormous cup toppled over. The plastic lid popped off and its icy contents poured onto Joanie’s desktop and cascaded down the front of her station.

“Goddammit!” she yelled, turning red. “What the hell are you doing, kid?”

Miranda was taken aback at the vitriol. Joanie was a grump but she didn’t know anyone could look so evil. Glaring at Noah, she looked as if she wanted to butcher him and eat him for dinner.

“Your brat just destroyed my station, Miranda!” She spat the words as she reached for a handful of napkins to sop up the mess. Miranda strode to the bathroom and snatched the paper towels from their holder, coming back in time to see Joanie shove Noah away as he handed her more napkins, almost knocking him over.

“He’s just trying to help, Joanie,” she said.

Joanie ignored her, eyes straight ahead, mopping up the pools of Diet Coke.

“I’m sorry, Miss Joanie,” Noah said in a small voice, eyes brimming over. Miranda’s heart broke and she gathered him into a hug.

“It’s OK, honey. You didn’t mean to. Just sit over here on my chair while we clean it up.”

She unwrapped a fistful of towels and bent to wipe the front of Joanie’s file cabinets. Joanie was seething.

“You don’t have to be such a bitch about it, Joanie,” Miranda muttered.

“Don’t call me a bitch, tramp,” she said, loudly.

Blood rose in Miranda’s face. She threw the sopping towels on the floor.

“Fine. You can clean it up yourself. What is wrong with you anyway?”

Mr. McGraw came trundling out of his office holding the newspaper.

“Now, now, what’s going on out here? What happened?”

Noah told him.

“Ah well, accidents happen, accidents happen, right?” he said, attempting to mollify Joanie, who glared at him with so much heat it was a wonder he didn’t combust on the spot.

Turning to Noah, his voice had a pained cheerfulness in the charged atmosphere.

“Gotta get my numbers in. Jackpot’s only two million but I wouldn’t turn it down, right?” he said. “Noah, wanna help me pick some numbers so I can win the jackpot, little man? How about you pick the first five and I pick the Powerball?”

“Awright.” Noah said.

“So what do you think the first one will be?”

“Eight,” said Noah without hesitation.

“OK, eight. Now what?”

“Fifty-nine.”

Miranda blinked. She didn’t think Noah even knew the number fifty-nine.

Mr. McGraw wrote it down and looked questioningly at Noah, who picked eleven, thirteen, and forty-seven for the last three numbers.

“All right! That’ll do. Thanks little man.” Mr. McGraw said. “I’m going to pick twenty-three for the Powerball. I’ll let you know tomorrow how rich I am. I have a good feeling about this!”

With a hearty good-bye he lumbered out.

Joanie finished wiping down her station and stalked out without saying a word, casting one more hateful glance towards Noah as she left. Miranda was still shaken by the confrontation.

“Miss Joanie was really mad,” Noah said.

“Yes, she really was, wasn’t she?” Miranda said.

“She wanted to hurt me.”

“No, she didn’t want to hurt you. She was just upset,” she spoke consolingly, and hoped it was true.

Miranda buckled Noah into his car seat and settled in to the driver’s seat with a sigh. Time for a glass of wine and some mindless television.

“Nice of you to help Mr. McGraw with his numbers.” she said. She smiled into the rear view mirror at Noah.

“Mr. McGraw’s nice. I like numbers,” he said cheerfully, singing a counting song he heard on TV. “Mr. McGraw’s gonna be rich.”

“Yes, indeed, I’m sure he will be.”

The next morning, as she scrambled eggs for Noah and brewed her coffee, the doorbell buzzed once, and then several times in a row as though a whole swarm of bees had taken up residence in it.

Miranda wiped her hands on a towel and hurried to make the noise stop. Throwing open the door and fully expecting to see a neighborhood kid disappearing around the corner, she was startled to find Mr. McGraw on her stoop, doing a dance like someone with bladder control issues.

“Mr. McGraw, what are you–”

He didn’t let her finish but grabbed her by the shoulders, pushing her backwards into her entryway with his enormous beer gut and talking so fast she could not tell what he was saying.

“Mr. McGraw, slow down! What the hell are you doing here? Do I need to call somebody?”

She felt trapped and more than a little anxious, and wished she had brought the frying pan to clang him over the head.

“No, no, I’m sorry. So sorry,” he panted, trying to catch his breath with his hand over his heart. “But Miranda, Miranda, I won the lottery!”

“What? Two million dollars?”

“No, not the whole lottery, but a hundred thousand dollars, Miranda. A hundred thousand! I got five numbers but I didn’t get the Powerball.”

“Mr. McGraw, that’s wonderful. I’m so happy for you.”

Miranda was nervous at the intrusion, nervous at his level of agitation, and was more than ready for the visit to be over.

“Don’t you see?” he said, eyes darting around her small foyer. “Your son—Noah is the key. He picked those numbers. I’ve been working the lottery for years now, years, and this is the first time I’ve won anything, much less a hundred thousand dollars. He’s got, I don’t know, he’s got some kind of gift! I just thought maybe he could help me one more time.”

“Mr. McGraw, this is absurd,” Miranda said. “You’ve gotten yourself far too excited and you’re not thinking clearly. Don’t you think if Noah had a gift like that I would have noticed by now? I’m his mother.”

She was more than nervous now, she was frightened. There was no way she was going to let this lunatic pump her son like he was a bellows of prosperity. She had to stop this now, and fast.

“Where is he, Miranda? Let me ask him. Just let me ask him to pick some horse names, please? There are races in Oklahoma City today and I know…”

“Absolutely not, Mr. McGraw,” she said, sharply. “And I would appreciate it if you would drop the idea entirely. You are not going to ask my son for any numbers or horse’s names or even the answer to the crossword puzzle. You need to leave right now.”

The coldness of her command broke through Mr. McGraw’s fevered brain and his excitement evaporated. He stood still for the first time and looked at Miranda, struck by her ferocity.

“I’m sorry, Miranda,” he stammered. “I guess I got a little carried away. You’re right, of course. I’m sure it was just a weird fluke.”

Laughing nervously, he backed out the doorway and stood on the stoop once more.

“I’m really sorry, Miranda. I was just so excited. I’ll see you at work. I might be taking a nice vacation pretty soon though; might even buy myself a fishin’ boat.”

“You do that, Mr. McGraw. You do that. That would be real nice.”

She all but shut the door in his flushed face and leaned heavily against it, sliding the deadbolt into place. She felt as though she had escaped a very real danger, as though a cold and menacing hand had just brushed her throat. Returning to the kitchen where her eggs were now cold and curdled, she looked at her boy, small and sweet in his footie pajamas, smiled brightly and burst into tears.

 

~Six~

He should not try to change things. Mama told him it was a bad idea. They had a long talk about it after he told Mr. McGraw his special numbers. He shouldn’t try to change things, and he should stay out of people’s business. Sometimes, though…sometimes Noah couldn’t help it.

He was alone on the playground. That was OK. He liked it better that way. Other kids were all right but they were pushy and really loud sometimes. He liked it quiet. Quiet didn’t bother him. Mama was inside having a conference with his teacher. He knew his teacher was saying that he was peculiar and maybe Mama should get some tests done on him. Maybe you should be worried is what the teacher meant.

Mama was worried, he knew that.

But she understood. At least, she tried really hard to understand, and that was almost the same thing. Mama would understand if he tried to change something just this one time.

Because the squirrel was really cute. It was just a baby, too; he could tell by its smallness and stringy tail. And if he didn’t do anything, a big orange tomcat was going to kill it, just kill it and not even eat it because that’s what cats liked to do.

He didn’t blame the cat. Cats were made to kill squirrels, they couldn’t help it. But he didn’t want this baby squirrel to get killed for no reason at all, not even to get eaten. It didn’t seem fair.

He watched the corner of the nearest house and waited. Sure enough, a large alley cat appeared. The battered old tom was scarred and missing part of an ear but its yellow eyes were shrewd and almost immediately it noticed the little squirrel nosing around in the autumn leaves at the base of the oak tree. Noah watched as the cat went into hunting position, shrinking low into the grass and creeping forward, nose barely skimming the ground. He felt a strange primordial excitement in his chest at the sight, as though he were part of the cat too, straining forward to get his teeth into the firm, warm body.

The squirrel was oblivious. Its senses were not yet finely-honed enough to differentiate between the many different sounds of wind and grass and creeping cat; it was barely out of the nest, probably on its first foray away from its mother.

Its mother would never know that it had been killed by a cat, Noah knew this. He wasn’t stupid enough to believe stories about talking animals that wore clothes and cleaned with feather dusters. Animals were just animals.

But this squirrel was so very cute and so very tiny and all alone. Noah crouched down slowly and watched the cat. Probably he should just let the cat do what it was supposed to do. Probably he shouldn’t try to change anything. Mama said that the way things happened was just the way things were supposed to be; just because he knew about them before anybody else didn’t mean he was supposed to do anything about them.

He wasn’t sure, though. Especially right now. Right now he wanted to leap at the cat, to clap his hands at it and scare it away from the squirrel so that it could go on living and learning how to bury nuts and climb trees.

So he did. Right as the cat was wiggling its butt to pounce, right before it could move any closer, he jumped forward and yelled.

“Yaaaah!” he said. “Yah, yah!” He clapped his hands and the cat bolted in the other direction, tail puffed out three times larger than it had been, around the corner of the school building.

The baby squirrel, just as startled, tore away from Noah and shot through the chain-link fence and into the street, where a passing car flattened it onto the asphalt. A small puff, like that of black smoke, hung above it before evaporating into the air.

Mama was right after all.

He shouldn’t try to change things.

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