Catch up here!
Chapters 20 & 21
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.
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.