Month: July 2016

Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapter 11

Read from the beginning of Part One here

Read from the beginning of Part Two here

 

~Eleven~

 

John was drowning in debt. There was no way to run from it now. Jenny’s medical bills were over a million dollars, and his insurance covered barely half of that. He considered selling the house and moving back to California to live with his parents until he could get a handle on his finances. He didn’t want to declare bankruptcy–not yet–but it was going to take some serious intervention to keep him from the inevitable lawsuits. Creditors could be vicious.

He didn’t want to leave Tulsa; it was a great town. He liked his job at the World and had lots of friends. Julie would be devastated, naturally. She shared such a bond with Noah, and he flinched at the thought of pulling them apart. She was not your average girl, he knew this, and while he did not know the full extent of her power, he was well aware that she was blessed with unusual abilities.

It was Jenny who brought it to his attention, of course. The Absent Minded Professor, she called him affectionately. She said he’d forget that they had five children if she didn’t remind him.

She had played a memory game with their youngest on the office floor one night when Julie was three years old to show him what she called Julie’s “mind games.”

He never forgot the image of the small girl, tiny fingers flipping over the square cards with animal pictures on them to make matches within seconds. She was never wrong, finding the mate each time without hesitation. Jenny’s eyes were wide, staring at him with a small smile on her face. He shook his head, disbelieving, until Julie played the game three times in a row, never missing a match.

Since then, they had tried to impress upon Julie the importance of keeping her talents somewhat hidden, making sure she understood just how special they were. Jenny told her to stay out of peoples’ minds, that it was rude to go poking around uninvited, and Julie had nodded soberly, a serious child with dark, fathomless eyes. He worried about her.

Until she found Noah. He marveled at how perfectly suited they were for each other, and thanked god for the gift of such a friend. He knew from Miranda that Noah had secrets talents of his own that increased the depth of their bond, and he feared the consequences of separating them. He didn’t know how to tell her they were moving.

In the end, of course, he didn’t have to.

Tears pooling in her eyes, she confronted him after school one winter day, saying she had been hit with the knowledge while she was eating lunch; it hit her in the middle of her bologna sandwich. She told Noah, and together they agreed that such a thing must not happen.

He tried to explain to Julie the depth of his financial distress but she wasn’t really listening. How could she understand? At nine, she knew only one thing, and that was that her only friend was going to be taken away from her. Even promises of a German Shepherd puppy and visits to the beach didn’t help; she was destroyed at the thought of moving. She ran from the room and across the street to his house.

 

She poured the story out to Miranda. She, too, was shocked and horrified at the idea of the Millers moving away, and immediately began to wonder just how bad the situation was.

“Dad said it was over a million dollars,” Julie sniffled. “That’s a lot, really a lot, I know. But maybe we can raise some money somehow. Maybe we could have a garage sale.”

“Or a car wash,” Noah added.

“I’m sorry sweeties,” Miranda said. “But car washes and garage sales don’t make half a million dollars.”

Noah ran and got his piggy bank, which was nothing more than an old pickle jar filled with nickles and quarters and a few dollar bills.

“Come on, Julie,” he said. “I’m going to give my money to your dad.”

As they crossed the street hand in hand, Miranda realized that financial security resided in the brains of the two children. She had known it, of course, ever since Noah picked Mr. McGraw’s winning lottery numbers, but she usually couldn’t think of it without bile rising in her throat. Its association with greed and death was indelibly imprinted upon her mind.

Now, however, everything was different.

This wouldn’t be money for gain. This wouldn’t be money used for despicable purposes by despicable people. This was a crisis situation—an opportunity to use Noah’s powers for something really important and good.

Still, she hesitated. Actions have consequences, that she knew well. A butterfly flapping its wings over Paris might cause a mudslide in Peru.

Or maybe this was fate. Their children weren’t part of the spectral order, they were subject to, and part of, all the machinations that created the ever-unfolding tapestry of life. They were woven into it, as much as she, John, and everyone else was. The only thing that made them different was an acute sensitivity to initial conditions. They didn’t know the future; perhaps they simply felt the present better than anyone around them. Better, but not perfectly.

And that wasn’t fate. She liked that idea. Despite his powers, Noah couldn’t possibly know everything. Things evolved and changed, and he wasn’t a supercomputer. He was just a little boy. He and Julie, they were children with gifts, and it was time to use them for something good.

She headed across the street to talk to John.

 

“Miranda, no.” John said. “This is unconscionable and I think you know that. We can’t use these children like that. It seems abusive somehow.”

“I know how you feel; believe me, I do,” Miranda said. “I wrestle with the ramifications too. I’m the one whose kid was kidnapped for this very thing, remember? But why the hell should they have these powers at all if it can’t be used for something good?

“Start toying with fate, and everything gets messy; really messy,” John said, pacing the floor. “If we are meant to move to California we shouldn’t try to change that.”

“Because you’re broke? Maybe Julie and Noah found each other so that they can help you stay; what are the chances they wound up across the street from each other? I can’t believe these things are accidents.”

“Everything we do affects something else,” John said. “The kids need to understand they can’t be using their…their…”

“It’s OK to say ‘powers’,” Miranda interrupted. “That’s what they are.”

“Powers, then. Powers. They can’t use them to get out of any jam that comes along. They need to have a normal life.”

“They’ll never have a normal life,” Miranda said. “And there’s a reason for that, I believe.”

“Chance, fate, destiny,” John sat on the couch wearily. “That’s what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? What’s the point?”

“I was a philosophy major. Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed. I loved the whole free will vs. fate thing. I think neither one is right. Fate is only a suggestion – a strong suggestion at times – but what’s the harm in trying? Maybe it won’t work. I don’t think it’s wrong to try.”

“It’s wrong because it will get the kids’ hopes up. If it doesn’t work, it will destroy them.”

“They’re already destroyed by the thought of you leaving,” Miranda insisted. “I don’t think it can get any worse.”

“Maybe you’re right,” John said. He sat for a long time, and the room was silent. “Let me think about it a little more, Miranda. I need to think about it.”

 

John thought. He grappled with the issues of right and wrong and ethics and principle. And he still could not fight his way out of the quagmire of gray he found himself in.

“I don’t know what to do,” he told Miranda. “I wish I had some powers to tell me if this is a good idea, but I don’t. I think Julie got her gift straight from her mother.”

“None of us can know what will happen,” Miranda said. “Ultimately, whatever you believe fate is, it still wins, doesn’t it? It’s not like we can outsmart it.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

They gathered Noah and Julie and asked them, taking turns, what numbers they felt were due to fall that Wednesday as the Oklahoma lottery was run. The jackpot was up to $1,420,000, and it would be enough—plenty—to get the Millers out of the hole. Julie and Noah thought carefully, faces somber, and gave their guesses.

They were correct, of course. John deposited the money into his bank account, stunned. Miranda and Noah steadfastly refused to take a penny of it, no matter how hard he insisted that part of it was theirs.

The Tulsa World ran a story on John, recounting the details of his wife’s death and the terrible state of health care in the U.S. that left him with such debt. He told the tale of how his daughter and her best friend had picked the winning numbers but her friend, a little boy named Noah Griffith, gave up his portion to keep them from moving away. It was a special piece, a heartwarming human interest story that had the newscasters dabbing at their eyes.

Mr. McGraw, watching it from his prison cell, teared up more than once.

Noah Knows, Chapters 7-10

Read from the beginning of part one here

And from the beginning of part two here

Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapters 7-10

 

Chapter Seven

~Seven~
The summer would be officially over in one week. Julie and Noah would attend the same elementary school, just two blocks away, and Julie questioned him relentlessly. They both felt the usual quivers of anxiety and excitement at the prospect of school, but this year was more anticipated than most because they had one another. Noah felt happier and more thrilled than he could ever remember.

The afternoon was hot and sticky and they played the cloud game until there were thunderheads overhead–the first in two months–and the county held its collective breath and prayed they would crack open and pour rain. Sitting on the swing set in Julie’s back yard, Noah swung as high as he could and tried to answer Julie’s inquiries.

“Are the kids nice?” Sure.

“Do you have to do PE?” Yes.

“Do you play a lot of dodgeball?” Unfortunately, yes.

“Are there bullies?” A few.

“What’s the playground like?” The usual.

Julie swung and tried to think of more questions.

“Will you still be my friend at school?”

“What?”

“Will you still be my friend–you know–even though I’m a girl?”

“Don’t be silly. Of course I will. You’re the only friend I’ve got.”

An enormous clap of thunder made them jump, and they came to a scudding halt on the swings, viewing the clouds with anticipation. A moment later fat raindrops began pelting the dry ground, soaking Noah and Julie in seconds. Shrieking, they crouched low and ran for the back porch. Jenny stepped out and handed them two old beach towels.

They sat in the breakfast nook, sampling Jenny’s peanut butter cookies and watching the rain pour down. Noah did not think he could feel more content than he did at that moment, with the smell of baking all around him and the sound of water sheeting off the roof. Jenny was really nice, he thought. And beautiful, too, just like Mama.

 

When school began, Noah and Julie were not seated next to each other but it didn’t really matter. They communicated throughout the air above the heads of their classmates and were often struck with fits of giggles simultaneously, to the perplexity of their teacher. The other kids teased them for being friends and sang round after round of the kissing song until Julie’s face turned red and she kicked them in the shins.

They sat together at lunch and played together at recess. They walked home after school and discussed the day’s events. If they had homework they usually wound up at Julie’s house, sitting with their heads bent over their papers, working silently. Numbers made absolutely no sense to Julie and she often relied on Noah to explain the lesson to her.

“I don’t get word problems at all,” she said one day. “If I take something away, I still have it. I just took it.”

“Taking away means you don’t have it anymore,” he said. “They really mean somebody else took it away.”

“If that’s what they mean, why don’t they just say it,” she stated with a frown, looking at the fingers she held up to keep track of what she was doing.

Noah never counted on his fingers or had to stack numbers on top of each other to add and subtract. He never showed his work; he just put the answer down, a habit his teacher found suspect until she quizzed him after school one day. She was amazed at his abilities, telling Miranda that he was a prodigy. He was now doing high school algebra, studying alone at a carrel while his classmates ground through multiplication tables. He found it almost as easy as addition and subtraction.

“You’re so lucky,” Julie sighed. “I wish I had that power.”

“But you’re good at other stuff,” he said. “You’re the best artist in the whole school. And you’re really good at reading. I’m not so good at that.”

Julie was a voracious reader. She was currently on the forth book of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and like to read it out loud to Noah. Noah saw reading as a necessary evil, but he enjoyed hearing Julie’s voice and often requested a chapter after they were done with their homework. They would go outside to the swing set and she would read about talking animals and far away worlds as he swung himself higher and higher, the images floating through his mind like the clouds he tried to touch with his sneakers. He especially liked hearing about Aslan, the lion that ruled Narnia, and thought that if there was a God, maybe he was a little bit like that.

He had lots of questions he’d like to ask Aslan, even though Aslan never really answered questions. Still, hearing the story always made him a little less anxious about the things that didn’t make any sense.

 

~Eight~

Other than occasional homework, everything at school was enjoyable. Art class was messy and delightful, science was enlightening and exciting, and field trips broke the monotony. The only cloud that darkened the bright sky of learning was Gary.

Gary was a hormonal mess of a fifth grader, with a pouty, doughy face and the slightest wisp of facial hair, which he took inordinate pride in. He presented a looming hazard to the younger students at school. He was a genius at nothing except harassing those smaller than himself, and turned even recess into a stressful and ominous affair.

Like most bullies, he was subtly menacing, with no overt gestures of violence. His methods were covert: small digs in the ribs, whispered threats, stolen treats at lunchtime, and sudden pinches that left deep bruises.

He also chose a particular victim to receive the brunt of his abuse; in this case it was a third grader by the name of Danny. Danny was little, smaller even than most of the second graders, and had a high, piping voice that reminded Noah of the tiny flitting wrens that gathered at Mama’s bird feeder in the winter. As soon as he appeared at school, midway through the second month, Noah knew he was doomed.

On the playground, Gary’s eyes lit upon Danny at the monkey bars and he moved towards him like a bird of prey circling and preparing to strike. As Danny reached for the first bar, Gary swatted his hand and sent Danny sprawling onto the gravel. He stepped onto his back to reach the bar, and swung across, laughing loudly. Danny clambered to his feet, wiping the back of his hand across his bleeding lip.

Not a single teacher had seen it. Noah and Julie, sitting on the swings, watched with trepidation and disgust.

“We have to help,” Julie said.

Gary loomed over Danny and whispered something in his ear that drained the boy’s face of color and brought tears to his eyes. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans, took out a small wad of money and handed it to Gary.

He snatched it gleefully and put it in his own pocket, giving Danny a hard pinch on the arm for good measure.

It went on like this for a week. Danny had his lunch money taken every day, and his arm was littered with bruises. The rest of the children tried to ignore it, their feelings of guilt eclipsed by the relief that Gary’s focus was on someone else.

Danny was a pariah, as no one wanted to be associated with the boy who garnered so much unwanted attention. Tormented and friendless, he sat alone at lunch and stared sadly at his food. He was even put on the same bus as Gary, a twist of fate Noah found particularly wrenching.

“Maybe we should tell the teachers,” Noah said.

“Are you kidding?” Julie asked. Gary will kill us for ratting on him.”

Noah definitely didn’t want that. The image of Gary’s over-developed body leaping out at them on their way home from school made his stomach lurch. No. If they did something, it had to be better than a futile appeal to the authorities.

“If we can make the black cloud go away, surely we can do something about Gary,” Julie said. “If only he knew what it was like to be bullied. I wish we could bully him.”

“Let’s make him bully himself,” Noah said, excitement in his eyes.

“What do you mean?”

“Concentrate,” he said, and nodded in Gary’s direction.

The bully had Danny by the arm. He curled his fingers into a fist and shook them in his face, lips moving with threats only the small boy could hear.

Together, Noah and Julie focused on one word. Punch.

Suddenly, Gary’s fist flew backwards at the most ridiculous angle, connecting solidly with his own nose. He slapped his hand over his face and started to cry. Blood streamed down his lip and he bawled louder, bringing the playground monitor to his side.

She pried his hand from his face and placed a tissue over his nose.

“He punched me!” Gary wailed, pointing at Danny. The teacher looked dubiously at Danny, and then back at Gary before marching him towards the school building and the nurse’s office.

Silence so thick that even the birds stopped singing followed in their wake, and everyone turned to stare at the waif of a boy standing beneath the monkey bars. A single handclap broke the hush. More and more joined in until there was a cacophony of applause bouncing off the nearby buildings and echoing across the playground.

A smile spread slowly across Danny’s face, and he bowed theatrically. Several other boys ran up to him and shook his hand, inviting him to join their game of foursquare. He nodded happily and took his place on the court.

Noah and Julie giggled behind their hands and high fived each other.

 

~Nine~

Noah was Superman. He could stop bullets with his eyeballs, and he could make time go backwards. Mama said he was her Superman even without the costume, and took lots of pictures before he left for school with Julie. Noah practiced flying as he waited for her in the front yard.

Julie was a fairy. She had wings and a wand that lit up and sparkled. Noah said she was pretty and she hit him with her wand.

“Don’t say that. The kids at school will sing the kissing song again.”

Miranda took their picture together.

“You guys have lots of fun today, OK? Bring me some candy.”

They started down the street, waving to both mothers as they went. Miranda called to Jenny from across the street.

“Aren’t they cute?”

“Sure are! Want to come in for a cup of coffee?”

“Wish I could, Jenny. I have to get to work, though. Rain check?”

“Sure thing.”

 

The party was fun, but Noah felt a little sick as they walked home. The Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, and cupcakes churned in his stomach and he felt a growing sense of doom. He needed to throw up, he just knew it. Julie told him they were almost there, just one more corner.

As they rounded the curve, flashing lights brought them up short. Noah suddenly couldn’t feel his stomach at all. In front of Julie’s house was an ambulance. Mr. Miller’s car was in the driveway but partly on the grass. The door hung open. Noah felt the blood drain from his face.

Frozen on the sidewalk in mid-step, Julie stared at the scene.

“No,” she said in a small voice.

Then she ran. Noah was behind her, but he didn’t want to go into her house, didn’t want to see what he knew was there, didn’t want to see Mrs. Miller sprawled on the kitchen floor, didn’t want to see her peaceful, beautiful face, pale and still and framed by a halo of dark curls.

He ran to his house, threw up in the toilet, and crawled under his bed.

He heard Grandma coming up the stairs, calling for him. He couldn’t move; he was frozen in his Superman suit, Kryptonite had found him and he was completely undone. Tears squeezed from under his eyelids but the images would not leave his mind. He saw the dead tabby, stretched out beneath Grandma’s azaleas. He saw flies covering the cat. He saw flies covering…

“No!” he yelled, scrubbing his eyes with his fists.

Grandma came into the room and he knew she could see his legs sticking out from beneath the bed. She sat down on the floor.

“Please come out, Noah. Julie’s mom—“

“–Don’t say it,” Noah begged, and scrambled from under the bed. “Don’t say it, Grandma.” He pulled the comforter from his bed and wrapped himself tightly, burrowing until his head was deep beneath the layers.

Grandma tried to unwrap him a little but he clenched the comforter tighter. “I won’t say it, honey, I won’t say it.” She was crying, too, and pleading. “Take the blanket off, Noah. Please don’t wrap it so tight. I promise I won’t say anything else. Your mama is on her way home to be with you.”

Noah released his grip and Grandma left, wiping the tears that dripped from her eyes. He remained cocooned in the comforter, but still the images came.

Mr. Miller on his knees, weeping and rocking and beating the floor with his palm; his head on his wife’s chest, begging her to come back to him.

The paramedics standing by, arms holding equipment that only worked on the sick and hurt, not the dead and gone.

The Miller’s son, Jeremy, who came home early from work and found his mother, sitting on the couch with his head in his hands as tears fell to the carpet.

Julie, just standing. That was the worst image of all. Just standing and staring with her dark eyes full of storms again, eyes with no light at all anymore, eyes that looked without seeing.

 

The memorial service was painful but brief, and it lingered like the sharp stab of a needle that throbs for days afterwards. John spoke. He spoke clearly and extensively of Jenny’s vibrancy, her love for life and family and friends.

He held the urn containing her ashes and spoke of her love for the sea and his intention to return her to her beloved Pacific. He didn’t choke up once, but his eyes were small with sorrow and his shoulders bowed low. Safely back in the pew, he put his head down and wept silently, tears dripping off the tip of his nose.

Julie was a robot, rising and sitting as required, lifeless and blank. Noah watched her anxiously.

He tried to reach her but she had closed herself off to him completely, and he didn’t push. He remembered how it felt before he met her, and the loneliness echoed through him again. He pressed close to Mama, and felt comforted by her arm around him, but it wasn’t the same.

The service ended and everyone was invited to the meeting hall to share their favorite memories of Jenny and have some refreshments. Noah and Miranda joined the long line of well-wishers offering condolences to John and the children in the sanctuary.

Noah was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the family’s pain as they drew closer; it hit him with a tangible force, washing over him in a dark wave.

He felt Mr. Miller’s heart; its shattered pieces numb and trampled. He did not want to be there at all, Noah realized. He wanted to leave, to run far away and never come back, or to curl up in bed and never get out. Instead, he stood with his children and shook hands, allowed himself to be hugged, over and over, and offered words of encouragement to the endless stream of weeping friends and family.

It was a strange reversal of roles that Noah found disturbing. Why should Mr. Miller have to tell people it would be all right? He needed to hear it most, after all. He looked fragile, as though at any moment he might crack down the middle and fall into pieces on the sanctuary floor, but he continued.

The pressure was almost unbearable, and Noah felt faint in the light of Mr. Miller’s courage. He and Mama reached the family and Noah shook all the hands but Julie’s, as she was curled up on the pew, eyes closed, arms wrapped around her knees. No one made her get up, and Noah was grateful for that. Mama hugged Mr. Miller’s neck and said how sorry she was.

He nodded but Noah wasn’t sure he heard her at all, and they went on to the hall, where a microphone was set up and people were milling about, putting bread and cheese and crackers and cookies into their mouths without tasting any of it.

An old high school friend took the microphone and reminisced about Jenny. More contributors came, and more, until it seemed like everyone had something to add. There was some laughter, and many tears. Photos of Jenny were clustered on a memorial table, and a slideshow with more favorite pictures flashed by on the wall. Noah could hardly look at them. He asked Mama if they could leave. She took one look at his pale face and said yes.

Mama made him some hot tea and he sat at the kitchen table with a blanket around his shoulders. She took his temperature but it was normal. He was tired, ineffably weary, and he asked if he could go to bed. Mama picked him up and he didn’t protest that he was too big to be carried like a baby. She walked heavily up the stairs and tucked him in, lying next to him with her arm under his head. He snuggled close to her body and sighed.

“It’s going to be OK, Noah,” she said softly. “Maybe not anytime soon, but eventually. Julie will come back to you. Just give her time.”

He nodded.

“Do you want to talk about anything?”

He wanted to talk about everything, but he couldn’t. Not yet. He shook his head. She stroked his hair and hummed until they both drifted off to sleep.

 

~Ten~

Miranda made seven dozen chocolate chip cookies and took them across the street to John and his family. Noah went with her. It had been two weeks since the memorial service. John made the trip with his children to the California coast, where they had chartered a boat and scattered Jenny’s ashes as dolphins frolicked beside them.

Miranda didn’t know if anyone would eat the cookies, but she couldn’t go empty-handed. Now that she was offering sympathy, she found herself doing all the things she said she’d never do. Taking food was one. Saying she knew how someone felt was another. Yet she found herself saying it to John, and mentally kicked herself.

“I don’t mean I know exactly how you feel,” she hastily corrected herself as she stood in his kitchen. “Nobody can feel what you’re feeling right now. I lost some people I really loved too. I know how alone you feel. Come over anytime if you feel like you need to talk.”

John nodded and seemed appreciative of both the cookies and the offer.

“I wish I could bring a big, nourishing pot of chicken soup or something,” Miranda sighed. “Do you need anything? Anything that isn’t food related?”

“I wish Noah here would go talk to Julie,” he said. “She doesn’t want to talk, and I’m really worried about her. The other kids go to counseling but Julie refuses to say a word. She just sits there.”

“I’ll see if she’ll talk to me,” Noah said softly, and went to Julie’s room. She was sitting on her bed with her homework on her lap, tears tracing silent paths down both cheeks and dripping onto her lined notebook paper.

“Hey,” Noah said from the doorway. She looked up and stared at him, as though making up her mind about something.

“Hey,” she said at last. Noah felt relieved. He sat on the end of the bed.

“Are you working on math?” he asked. She nodded and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand.

“I don’t understand this at all,” she said angrily, slapping the paper. “I read it and read it and it still doesn’t make sense. I’m so stupid.”

“You’re not stupid, Julie. You’re one of the smartest people I know.”

He slid next to her and explained the process of borrowing in a way she seemed to immediately understand. She nodded, sniffed loudly, and wiped her nose on her sleeve. She worked out another problem, and looked at him with her eyebrows raised. He nodded and smiled.

Julie went back to work, her face dark but less closed. Noah felt elated, if just a little, and hope bloomed anew. Maybe Julie would be his friend again. Maybe Mama was right. He just had to be patient.

Suddenly, her head jerked up and she frowned at him.

“I don’t know if we can be friends anymore, Noah.”

The good feelings evaporated as quickly as they had stolen in.

“Why?” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“Because you remind me that we failed. Every time I look at you I remember how happy I was and it makes all the sadness even worse.”

She sprang from the bed, suddenly furious, and paced the floor.

“The fog came back; it came back and we couldn’t stop it. It came and took her anyway, and it’s not fair, and I hate it, I hate it so much—“

She sank to the floor, crying so hard she couldn’t speak anymore, and Noah wished he could speak the right words and make everything different. Death was everywhere, he knew it was, and there was nothing they could do to stop it; they had thought they were powerful but they weren’t, not really, they were just kids and kids can’t do anything about big things like death. Death did whatever it wanted.

“I’m sorry, Julie,” he said, though he knew it wasn’t enough.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she sobbed. “You’re wrong. We are powerful. We are, Noah. We made it disappear, but it knew when to come back.”

“I guess so,” he said, sitting down next to her. “Or, maybe it didn’t; maybe it was just a thing that was supposed to happen and that’s why we couldn’t stop it. Just like Mike dying. Maybe it just had to happen.”

“Who’s Mike?”

“Mike was my mom’s boyfriend. They rescued me when Joanie and Mr. McGraw kidnapped me. He died. I liked him a lot.”

“The bad thing?” Julie whispered.

“Yeah. The bad thing.”

Julie became quiet, and leaned against Noah. He put his arm around her.

Please still be my friend, he thought. I miss you.

There was nothing for a moment and he began to despair.

How can I ignore you? she thought back, finally. You, with your big loud thoughts?

Then, she turned to him and smiled; barely, but it was a smile.

 

Miranda opened the door to find John standing on her stoop, fingering the buttons on his vest. He opened his mouth to speak, seemed to think better of it and shut it again.

She opened the door wider and he stepped across the threshold and stopped in the hallway, rubbing the back of his neck and looking at her with red, weary eyes. She motioned for him to take a seat on the couch and offered him a cup of coffee.

“Whiskey, if you have any,” he said softly.

“I definitely have whiskey,” she said.

She pulled the liquor from above the refrigerator, grabbed two tumblers, and took a seat across from him in the overstuffed recliner. She poured them both a drink and set one on the coffee table in front of him, the bottle next to it.

He took a swallow, then swirled the amber liquid in its glass. The air was almost unbearably still. Miranda waited, knowing there were many things that could not be rushed. Grief was one of them.

“I should have called before I came over. But you said anytime, so I decided you meant that.”

She insisted she had.

“You said you have some experience with loss, Miranda, and I surely need to talk to someone. Someone who understands. Do you mind if I ask you what happened?”

She drained her glass and poured some more, wondering how to begin. As concisely as she could, she told of Dean, and Hugh, and the circumstances of Noah’s birth. She told him of Noah’s abduction and Mike’s murder and John gave a low whistle, shaking his head and staring at her.

“And I thought I had a sad story.”

“You do,” she said. “Nobody will feel it the same as you. That’s why grief is so isolating. But yeah. Pain. I’ve had some. It helps to know you’re not alone.”

“I don’t know how to go on,” he said. “How do I do my job–take care of my kids, and remember the bills–through this horror? I just want to lay down, Miranda. I want to lay down and sleep until I can wake up next to her somewhere. Heaven, or whatever. I don’t want to be here anymore, not without her. I don’t even care that my kids need me. I don’t want to be needed. I only want her back.”

He put his head in his hands and cried great, heaving sobs. Miranda sat next to him, put her arm around his shoulders and felt tears of her own spilling over in empathetic sorrow. She handed him a box of tissues and he blew his nose loudly and wiped his eyes, breathing a long, shuddering sigh.

“I think I’ve been holding that in for weeks.”

“I remember how horrible it was, having to be strong in front of everybody.” Miranda said. “You need a friend to cry on. Someone you don’t feel self-conscious with.”

“I don’t feel self-conscious with you,” he said. “Is that you, or the whiskey?”

“I hope it’s me.” She smiled. “I hope you feel comfortable here. You’re always welcome.”

“It hurts so much more than I thought.” John said. “I was ready for her to die. I’m so grateful for the extra months we had with her. But thinking she was back, and then losing her anyway; it doesn’t make any sense. How can that happen?” He put his head in his hands again.

“You can never prepare for it,” Miranda said, softly. “I really thought it would kill me. I wished it would. But I had Noah, and he helped me.”

“The kids–they need me, I know. I feel like I have to be everything to them now.”

“Believe me, you don’t,” Miranda said. “Don’t buy that lie. They need to see you grieve. You need to show them it’s OK to be destroyed by it. It’s not weak; it’s the greatest kind of strength.”

“I don’t want them to worry about me. I want them to concentrate on their own healing.”

Miranda shook her head. “You guys have to heal together. You’re a family; you need to wade in there, get all messy with it, and let it knit you together. Otherwise, it will tear you apart. Noah and I cried a lot together. We also went through extensive counseling.”

John balled up the wet tissues and threw them into the trash can. “I’m not sure I’ll be good at that.”

“Just be patient,” she said. “Be real. And when that’s hard, there’s always whiskey.”

The corners of his mouth twitched upward, just a little.

“There will always be whiskey.”

He lifted his glass. “Here’s to…I don’t know. To not being strong.”

“To not being strong,” she agreed, and they drank.

 

Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapters 4-6

Start here to read from the beginning…

 

Part Two

Chapter Four

 

Good Morning.

Noah jumped from his bed, pulled the curtains back, and gazed outside. Across the street, he saw Julie standing in her bedroom, framed by her window. She waved at him, grinning broadly.

Good morning, Julie, he answered, waving back. The early morning sunlight was just creeping over the rooflines, sending long shadows across the road.

They played this game every morning, seeing who could get up first and wake the other. Sometimes he won, but most of the time it was Julie who roused him. She was a morning person. It was 6:38 a.m., according to the clock by his bed.

Mama would not be up for another hour. He peeked into her darkened bedroom and heard the soft snore that meant she was sleeping soundly. Sometimes, he heard her in the middle of a nightmare, and he would climb onto the bed next to her, shaking her hard to wake her up. She always hugged him tightly and thanked him, but she never told him what the nightmares were about. He was glad about that.

He hopped down the stairs and opened the front door for Julie. She never knocked. She never had to; Noah always knew when she was there. They went to the kitchen, taking care to avoid the tile’s grouted seams. Between them, they had good reasons not to take chances.

He got the Honeycomb, she got the milk and two Tupperware bowls, and together they sat at the worn wooden breakfast table and ate in silence.

It wasn’t polite to talk with your mouth full, and even though they could speak without opening their mouths it still felt wrong and so they didn’t. When they were done Noah took their bowls to the sink and Julie put the box away.

They stepped out the back door from the kitchen and stood on the concrete parking area. The air was already thick with humidity but there was a sweet breeze ruffling their hair and they didn’t notice the heat. Noah retrieved a large bucket of broken sidewalk chalk from under the porch stoop and they set to work.

The chalk was dusty and cool in Noah’s hand and he was filled with contentment. He drew an alien with three heads and large, spreading claws, filling in the blank expanses with sweeping blue strokes. Julie drew a bird with wings outstretched over its nest. When they were done they sat back and examined their artwork.

“Yours is better,” Noah said. It was true. The bird was brilliant. Julie cast him a sly look and suddenly the birds wings began to flap up and down. He giggled, and made his monster’s claws open and shut. The two pictures moved across the concrete like oil floating on top of water. This gave them another hour’s worth of entertainment before the sun took its toll on their fun.

“Whew. It’s getting hot.” Julie wiped her bangs out of her eyes. “Let’s fill the swimming pool.”

Noah went inside to put on his suit, and crossed the street to where Julie was standing with the green garden hose, filling the small blue pool. Her sister came out the front door and got into her car, lifting the mirror on the visor to apply a vibrant shade of lipstick. Noah thought she was very pretty in her yellow sundress, and told her so.

“Well, aren’t you sweet!” she exclaimed. “Thank you! I have to work today, isn’t that sad?” She pouted with her bright mouth as she closed the door and pulled away. Noah didn’t think she seemed very sad about it at all.

“She’s not sad,” Julie said. “She has a crush on one of the grocery boys; she’s really in love with him. She’s happy she gets to work. Plus then she doesn’t have to be around here. Nobody wants to be around here but me and Dad.” She frowned a little.

“I’m sorry, Julie.” Noah took her free hand in his and held it. He knew that sometimes there wasn’t anything else to say. She looked at him for a moment, inscrutable and dark, and then turned with one swift motion and soaked him with the hose.

For the next few hours they had more riotous fun in the 18 inches of water than should have been humanly possible, even playing a raucous—and admittedly short—game of Marco Polo. Finally, exhausted and pruney, they lay side by side in the warm water and discussed what to do with the hours that were left in the day.

“Let’s go to my Grandma and Grandpa’s house.” Noah suggested. “I know the way; I could show you Moxie. She’s my Grandma’s dog. You’d like her.”

Julie agreed that this was an excellent scheme, and went to get permission. Noah ran to his house, found Mama reading a book in the living room, and asked if they could go.

“By yourselves? Are you sure you even know the way?” Mama’s eyes were anxious. Noah rattled off the directions flawlessly, and she sat silently for a moment, deliberating.

There was an eagerness in Noah’s eyes that told her he wanted to show off his navigational abilities. She was nervous at the thought of them walking alone but she knew this was irrational; children smaller than Noah walked to school from their neighborhood. She still made the trip with him every day.

She had, in the years since Mike’s death, been told she had a well-deserved case of post-traumatic stress disorder which plagued her with bad dreams, but in waking life she felt she had gained some measure of freedom from it. Events in the past had wrecked some parts of her soul and she knew this was an opportunity to deny their hold on her.

She wanted to extend to Noah the grace that independence required. She didn’t want him to be bogged down by anything of her own that was too heavy for him to carry, and so she nodded in spite of the fear.

“Let me call Grandma and make sure she’s home.” She rose to get her phone from the bedroom and Noah was left alone with his thoughts. He knew Mama was afraid to let him go, and he was glad she said yes. Mama was brave. Really brave. Right now she was calling Grandma, and Grandma was saying that yes, she was home, and she would love to have them over for a while. She would make scones. Noah loved Grandma’s scones, especially when she put chocolate chips in them.

“Grandma says yes, you can come over,” Mama said. “She’s going to make you scones, you lucky dog.” She handed him a T-shirt and his flip flops.

“You won’t talk to any weirdos, right?” she asked as he pulled the shirt over his head. “You’ll wait for the light to show the little walking guy, right? Even if there’s not a car for a million miles. And call me when you get there?”

Julie joined him on the front porch and they walked all the way to the end of the block and turned. He saw Mama still standing there, and he waved.

“Bring me a scone!” she shouted.

He suddenly felt older, then, walking with Julie, and a small, protective wave surged up. Let’s just see any weirdos try to mess with us, he thought. Julie giggled.

“What?”

“You. Beating up the weirdos,” she said, punching the air. “What about me? I bet I could beat up more weirdos than you.”

“Yeah. You probably could.” He smiled. “We could beat up weirdos together. We could be a gang.”

“A really small gang.” She laughed.

Soon they were at Grandma’s door and she threw it open with exclamations of admiration that they made the trip alone. Noah submitted to kisses and Julie had her hand shaken with exaggerated solemnity by Grandpa. For the next two hours, Grandma peppered them with questions as they ate scones and played with her chiweenie, Moxie. Julie laid on the floor and giggled madly as the dog snuffled her ears.

“She’s a really great dog,” she said wistfully. “I miss our dog. He was really great too. Dad just thought things were too stressful to keep him, and I guess he was right. But I really wish we could have brought him.”

“I’m sorry, honey. Maybe someday you’ll have another great dog.”

“I hope so. I’d like to have a German Shepherd. I really like those.”

“A German Shepherd would eat you in one bite, wouldn’t it, Moxie? Wouldn’t it, huh? Huh? Huh?” Noah laughed as Moxie got more and more excited as he spoke, bending almost in half as she wiggled for him.

“I guess we better head back now,” Noah said. “Mama sounded really happy when I called but she’ll feel better when I get back.”

“You’re such a wise boy, Noah,” Grandpa said with a wink. “Sometimes you seem much older than nine.”

After more hugs and kisses they left, Noah swinging a bag with scones inside for Mama. Julie had her own bag, too.

“I never had a scone before,’ she said. “They sure were good.”

“Look at the kitty,” Noah said, pointing across the street. A small tabby trotted along the gutter. It looked up as Noah made kissing noises through his teeth, skittering away as they neared.

“It’s afraid of us,” Julie said, and held out her arm for him to stop, hunkering down to make herself less threatening and calling kittykittykitty in a soft voice.

The cat stopped and turned to look at her. It slowly slunk closer, pausing before darting halfway across the road.

An enormous blue Dodge truck with a pair of metal testicles dangling from the back hitch squealed around the corner and came hurtling down the road.

Slow down, slow down, slow down, Noah thought.

“Slow down!” he screamed over the roar of the engine, hopping up and down frantically, hoping to alert the driver. The engine sputtered and died, but roared back to life almost as quickly, and the truck lurched forward again. The cat darted backwards and then abruptly changed direction, finally crouching immobile on the concrete, where the right front tire hit it with a sickening thud.

Horrified, Noah and Julie watched the truck fly heedlessly by and disappear over a hill. They stood, gazing at the small, still form in the gutter on the other side of the road.

Julie cried, springing forward with Noah close behind her. Breathlessly, they leaned over the crumpled form. It gasped brokenly; blood bubbled from its nostrils as its eyes rolled white in its head.

“The poor, poor thing,” Julie said. She was near tears and reached out for Noah’s hand, squeezing it tightly. He felt as though the creature had entered his own head and made its fear and pain his own; he saw himself and Julie bent over it, figures enormous and threatening in its panicked state.

“Stupid truck!” Julie screamed in the direction it had gone. “Stupid driver! Stupid…asshole!”

“We’re scaring it,” Noah said. “Maybe we should leave it alone.”

“Leave it alone?” she cried. “Noah, we have to do something.”

“It’s gonna die, Julie. Look, it’s dying right now.”

The cat shuddered violently with each breath, its eyes clamped shut, its front paws paddling in the air as though trying to get away. Noah saw a dark mist settling on it, cold and familiar, and reflexively he waved his hand at it, trying to brush it away. Julie stared at him.

“You see it too?” she whispered.

Tears were pouring down her face as she reached out and gently touched the creature. Noah felt the cat’s fear ebb a little. He stroked its fur, sorrow welling up inside of him.

The black, vaporous cloud agitated briefly and rose off the animal, swirling in the air before them. They moved their hands away and it settled once more onto the cat’s broken body. They stared at one another and together put their hands on it again. Again, the cloud rose and swirled, seeming to coagulate and dissipate by turns.

Beneath their hands the animal wheezed and coughed. Its eyes opened and it looked at them. The back legs, which had been limp and unmoving, began to twitch.

“Noah…” Julie said, so soft he hardly heard her.

“Close your eyes,” he said. “Close your eyes, Julie, and think about it. Think about it all better.”

They shut their eyes, hands still stroking the matted fur, and thought hard. Julie’s thoughts joined Noah’s and they saw the cat running, leaping, pouncing on bugs in the yard, and lounging in the sun. They thought live and breathe and please don’t die. They felt movement beneath their palms and opened their eyes, not daring to believe what might be happening.

The cat rolled once, and sat up, rubbing its head on their hands, moving back and forth as though nothing had happened, meowing and lashing its tail before sitting down to calmly lick its rumpled fur. The two children gazed at each other, mouths hanging open.

The black mist was gone.

 

~Five~

 

“Please, Noah. Please. We’ve got to try. You’ve got to help me!”

Noah suddenly felt as though he was moving even though he was sitting still. He closed his eyes and felt the movement of the earth as it hurtled through space, felt time as it carried him along, and all his cells growing older in his body.

He felt Julie’s desperation and the burden of her request bearing down upon him like the Dodge bore down upon the cat just a few days before.

He didn’t want to help. He didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to go into the room of death and try to dispel the black cloud that hung so thickly over Julie’s mama. It wasn’t that he didn’t think it would work. It was because he knew it would.

“Noah, please…” Her eyes were dripping and her face was growing hard and angry. He knew things she couldn’t understand; that there were things they shouldn’t mess with, things that were better left alone. And if it worked for Julie’s mama, what would it mean for his own, who grieved for something that maybe he could have fixed if only he had known?

But I was just so little then, he told himself, feeling at least half a million years old. I didn’t know anything. Mama would understand that. Mama understands better than anybody.

“If you don’t help me, we can’t be friends anymore.”

Julie’s voice and face were very hard now, and he knew she was hearing all the wrong things in his mind. He was blocking her and it made his head hurt but he didn’t want her there, not right now, not in those places, not ever.

“I can’t do it alone. It doesn’t work without you. I already tried. I need you.”

“I’ll help you,” he said softly.

 

Hand in hand, they entered the dim living room where Jenny slept. Her grandma dozed in the La-Z-Boy next to the bed. The air was thick with the acrid smell of medication and bleach.

Noah’s eyes were wide open, pupils round and glassy in the darkness. He saw Jenny’s tousled hair on the pillow and her bony hand that lay on the blanket, crocheted in brown and blue hues that reminded him of the beach. He knew that it was made by Julie’s Great-Aunt Emily, who was 73 and who prayed every day for them; she didn’t just say it, she did it. He saw the stitches and knew there were 28,462 of them, every one counted and imbued with love, miles and miles of yarn woven into a tangible display of concern.

Mostly, however, he saw the black cloud.

It hung just over Julie’s mama, swirling and coiling like smoke, so thick he almost couldn’t see Julie’s sleeping grandmother on the other side of the bed. It was oppressive and malevolent and it waited, growing and gathering strength every day, until it could drop over Jenny and suck the last bit of breath from her body.

Noah realized he was holding his own breath, as though the black cloud might descend upon him instead and lift him from the floor, carry him into the sky and take him away forever.

Be brave, Noah, Julie said, speechlessly, in the stillness of the room.

He was brave. He was brave like Mama. Julie pulled him forward and they stood beside her mother’s head. She put her hand gently on the dying woman’s chest and leaned forward to kiss her hollow cheek. Jenny’s eyes fluttered open and she smiled when she saw them. Her green eyes were beautiful in the darkness and Noah felt a trembling in his chest when they fixed upon him.

“Hello,” she breathed. It was faint, imperceptible in any other room. The quiet was so dense it enveloped them.

“Hi, Mom,” Julie whispered. “This is my friend Noah. He wanted to meet you.”

Jenny closed her eyes again but the smile remained. “Nice to…meet you.”

Noah placed his free hand on Jenny’s left shoulder, shuddering at the skeletal feel of it beneath the sheet. Julie closed her eyes and Noah did, as well, stealing softly into her mind to see her memories.

A bright summer day, a picnic, and Peanut running around, barking his head off, chasing a Frisbee. Laughter. Jenny sitting on the blanket with John’s head in her lap, stroking his hair as she listened to Jane talk about school that week. Her hair is blond and her cheeks are glowing.

Christmas. Presents everywhere; wrapping paper littering the floor. Jenny in the kitchen, making Christmas dinner as she sips wine and sings loudly along with the carols playing on the stereo, stopping to kiss John and clink glasses and kiss again.

Julie’s birthday. Her mom placing a paper crown on her head, bedecked with streamers and glitter and a large number 5 in bright green. An enormous pink cake shaped like a castle with five turrets, Jenny taking a bow after bringing it out, explaining to her parents just how she made it, how long it took, but how worthwhile it was to make Julie happy.

Live, live, live, Julie said, chanting inside her head. Live, live, live!

Noah took up the mantra as well, and together their voices joined in his mind. He peeked from under his lids and saw the black vapor roiling like a thunderhead about to drop lightening upon the earth. He glanced at Julie and saw that she was watching, too, and she squeezed his hand so tight he thought she might break his fingers.

Live, live, live!

Noah’s head hurt and he wasn’t sure how long they had been standing there when Julie’s grandmother gave a sudden jerk in her chair and sat up with a grunt.

“What are you doing?” she whispered. “What do you need? You shouldn’t be in here; your mother is trying to rest. Did you need something?”

Julie said no, they didn’t need anything. She just wanted to see her mom, and let her meet Noah. Her grandmother softened.

“Your mom is asleep; do you want me to call you when she wakes up? Maybe you can talk to her then.”

Julie nodded and they left the house. They stepped through the front door and into the blinding sunlight.

Neither of them spoke. From all around them the sound of cicadas filled the air and the heat bore down on them. It seemed as though nothing had happened.

“Do you think it helped?” he asked softly.

“My mom is going to live,” Julie said simply. “I think we’ll have to do it more than once, though.”

Although Jenny hadn’t risen from the bed and stood fully fleshed before them, he felt certain that something had altered in Jenny’s chemistry as they stood there, hands linked, pouring their power into her. The black sea had boiled and although it had not vanished, it was scattered and less focused by the time they were done. They had scrambled its brains and left it confused. He felt elated and terrified at the same time.

“We’ll do it again tomorrow. I’ll tell you when,” Julie said.

They went back the next day, and the next, and six more times after that. The last time the mist seemed as inconsequential as the tendrils from a recently extinguished match. Soon, even they were gone.

 

~Six~

 

It was a miracle. Everyone, from doctors to the Miller’s mailman, said it must be.

Jenny—a shriveled husk in the final stages of terminal brain cancer—recovered.

It was August, and the drought-prone Oklahoma summer sucked the life out of everything. The Bermuda grass lawns were shriveled and brown, and the trees went into early dormancy, shedding their leaves prematurely to conserve what little energy they had left.

The air pressed heavy all around and filled everyone’s lungs with its thick, suffocating weight. Nothing seemed to thrive, and people moved at half-speed.

Inside the Miller household, however, life abounded.

The hospital bed was gone. The morphine pump was carried out amidst a cacophony of cheers. Home health care aides with smiles big as canoes removed the detritus of the death process and wished Jenny well as they left.

She stood in the living room, pale but radiant, surrounded by people there for a party to celebrate her recovery. Her children hung close to her like satellites orbiting the sun, and her health was toasted again and again by relatives and friends.

Julie stood at her side, arms around her mother’s waist. Noah hung back with Mama, who was thoroughly delighted. The team of oncologists who told her to get her affairs in order less than a year earlier were there, delighted to have been proven wrong.

And then there was John.

He was almost radiant. He stood beside his wife, hand in hers, and could not stop looking at her, drinking her in from head to toe. He beamed. He kissed her forehead, her lips, her cheek, her palm.

When she first looked better he told himself it was a trick of the light. When the faintest blush of color appeared on her cheeks he wept at his vain imagination.

But the day she opened her eyes and told him she was hungry, he had a hard time stamping down the hope that welled up. Watching her drink an entire milkshake, he asked himself if it could be true; was he witnessing a recovery?

The morphine pump chugged less often. The flesh returned to her body. And when he wheeled her into the oncology center for MRIs, they had both walked out with impossible ringing in their ears.

No tumors remained. There was no trace of cancerous cells.

John wondered if he would wake up from this most pleasant dream. The valley of the shadow of death was too deep a place to be forgotten so quickly, and he wondered if they were treading on the edge of a vast canyon, into which the slightest wind might cause them to tumble. He could not know the future.

He didn’t want to know. But while he was here on the precipice, he danced. Oh, how he danced. He cartwheeled and jigged in the very depths of his heart.

For Julie, victory was complete. She and Noah had dispelled the demons and scattered the specter. Her mother belonged to her again; she was available to help and play and scold and teach, and nothing was sweeter to her ears than the voice that asked her if she wanted waffles or pancakes for breakfast.

Julie had a new haircut, too; Jenny took one look at the choppy boy cut John had attempted and took her straight to the salon to shape it into a pixie.

Noah was stunned by the transformation. She stood, hugging Jenny’s arm and smiling, all the dark storms in her eyes replaced by clear white light.

Noah was happy, too. He felt he had done a good thing, a wonderful thing, an amazing thing, but–not necessarily the right thing. What did that matter in the end? He wasn’t even sure what right meant anymore.

What could be wrong about this, after all? All this joy, all this celebration that he and Julie were responsible for. Still, he was uneasy. He hadn’t told Julie just a week earlier he found the tabby’s corpse in his grandparent’s bushes, stiff and cold, its spirit long gone. He knew what it meant, but he pushed it down hard and refused to look it full in the face.

He smiled, but his heart was full of questions.

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