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.