Start here to read from the beginning…
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.
“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.
“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.
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.