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?”
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.
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.