Catch up here!
“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.
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.