Read from the beginning of part one here…
And from the beginning of part two here…
Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapters 7-10
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?”
“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.
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.
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?”
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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.