Month: August 2016

Noah Knows, Chapters 9-11

~Nine~

Fatass was not an exemplary cellmate, despite turning over the most valuable information Hugh ever dreamed of.

Sloppy, noisy, and prone to fits of tears, he caused Hugh to practice deep breathing more than an Indian yogi in an ashram. It was that, or bury his fist in Fatass’s fleshy face.

He much preferred his first roommate, a twitchy small-time drug dealer who held up a convenience store with a rubber gun. When Hugh was moved to Oklahoma due to overcrowding in Alabama, however, he found himself stuck with Fatass. God, the snoring! It nearly drove him to homicide. He was determined to control his violent tendencies, and breathed so deeply he nearly sucked the mortar from the bricks of their cell.

Fatass loved to talk, endlessly, mostly about food. Sometimes about horse racing. Sometimes about fishing. Hugh asked for extra time with the New Age therapist and she gave him coping techniques for tuning it out.

“Be the light, Hughie, remember how badly you want to get out of here,” she purred to him after their sessions. “Edward doesn’t feel his own divinity, but you do.”

Hugh repeated it to himself as he lay on his bunk and Fatass prattled on. He wanted to get out. He was on the right track. He was compliant; he gave information when he had it, and he didn’t get involved in gang politics. He was solitary and malleable, and invisible to other inmates.

Fatass did not begin to understand this. He seemed to think they were bunkmates at a sleep-away camp, and constantly sidled up to him as though they were going to get a flashlight and tell ghost stories under a blanket.

He was a big, slobbery dog, and Hugh hated dogs. He imagined shoving his brown plastic spork into Fatass’s spinal column, or scooping his eyeballs out in one swift motion, but he refrained. He did indulge his fantasies, however, as he lay on his bunk and tried to blot out his cellmate’s voice. He knew it wasn’t waves lapping at the shore of a Caribbean beach, as his New Age therapist recommended, but he went with what worked.

One day, thinking about knotting his bedsheet around Fatass’s neck and pulling, tighter and tighter, until his voice was just a gurgle and his eyes rolled white into his head, his ears pricked at something Fatass said. It was strange enough to make him sit up on his bed and swing his legs out, feet flat on the concrete floor.

“What did you say?”

“When?” Fatass asked, flustered at the sudden interest.

“A moment ago. You said something about a kid. A kid with powers or some bullshit.”

“Noah. He’s why I’m in here. I just wanted him to help me. I asked nicely, but Miranda, she wouldn’t let me near him.”

“Miranda. You said Miranda?”

“Yeah, Miranda.”

“Where were they from?”

“Tulsa, like me.”

“What did she look like?”

“She’s really pretty. Smiles a lot. Nice legs, red hair. What’s the deal? Do you know her?”

Hugh didn’t answer. This is impossible, he thought. There must be hundreds of Mirandas out there. Maybe more. Maybe a quarter of those had red hair. Maybe a fifth of that quarter were pretty. But only one could be from Tulsa and have a son named Noah.

What were the chances? What were the goddamned chances this was the same Miranda, with the same bastard offspring?

“She’s late twenties, I guess,” Fatass continued. “Maybe thirty. Doubt it, though. Kid was three. No, five. He told me he was five, and it was his birthday; I remember that.”

If Hugh believed in god, he would have given thanks to this cosmic juxtaposition, because the chances were infinitesimal. Infinitesimal.

“What do you mean, the kid had some kind of powers?”

“He had powers; probably still has them,” Fatass gushed. He was excited to have the focused attention of his cellmate. He grew animated. “He could tell which horses were going to win; he knew the winning numbers of the lottery. He was golden, I’m telling you.”

“You kidnapped him?”

Fatass shrugged and hedged. “If you wanna say it like that. I needed some help. I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.” His eyes filled with tears. “I wanted to win, and Miranda wouldn’t let him help. I just wanted to borrow Noah for a while.”

The tears turned to sobs and Hugh turned away in disgust, throwing himself back onto his bunk. Eventually, the crying stopped, and the endless narrative resumed.

“It was Joanie’s idea, really. She said she could get him easy, just walk up and grab him, and she did. Chloroform. I didn’t know you could just buy that stuff. We got him to pick some horses. The first ones were wrong. I think the chloroform messed with his head. But the next time, he was right on, every horse. I won over five thousand dollars. I should have bet more, but I was playing it safe. I didn’t have another chance after the cops showed up, and Joanie, she…” he burst into tears again.

“So that’s why you’re here, then?” snapped Hugh.

“Yeah.” hiccupped Mr. McGraw. He then informed Hugh that Noah had won the lottery a few years back, and that he had seen it on the TV. Surely there should be a news story about that somewhere.

Hugh, for the first time in his life, didn’t know what to think. He didn’t believe Fatass, not really, not that Miranda’s kid had special powers, at least. He categorically disbelieved all of that horseshit, but when he mentioned it to Serena the New Age therapist she strenuously assured him of the possibility that Noah was, indeed, gifted.

“Gifted people are uncommon, but they’re all around us.” She breathed in his ear as she helped him into Parivrrta Janu Sirsasana IV, an asana he was trying to master. He grunted. It took his breath away.

“Damn…kid…should be…retarded,” he said, his internal organs smashed into the space of a grapefruit, his nose nearly touching the back of his knee. “…Not…even…mine…”

“People who are clairvoyant often don’t realize it at first,” she said. “But their powers often peak in adolescence.”

“Fatass…said…he picked…lottery numbers,” he said, his spine screaming. “…and winning horses…” he panted.

“I’m sure he did,” she sang as she took hold of his toes and brought them behind his back. “I knew a yogi once who could pick winning horses every day. He didn’t, of course, because he took vows of poverty. But he could.”

“You really…think so…?” He broke out of his pose and lay prone on the floor in savasana.

“I know so, darling,” she said, standing on her hands, effortlessly. “I know so.”

Later, Hugh used his 30 minutes of internet time and found the story of the lottery winners from years before. Sure enough, there it was, just as Fatass had detailed, complete with a picture of a small bespectacled man, his daughter…and Miranda and Noah.

His mind reeled and his world view shook. For an imminently rational man, things like psychic ability made no sense. For an imminently rational man, however, testimony and evidence were the only things that made sense. In that moment, Hugh believed.

That was also the day he started to fashion his plan.

It was simple enough: recoup the money Miranda took from him, and dispose of both her and her son. He wasn’t going to be stupid, however, like Fatass. He didn’t have to rely on some woman to have balls for him. He would be patient, as patient as needed. Prison taught him how to wait, and he was good at it.

So he waited, even after he got out, and cultivated a quiet rage until it flowered full and ready for harvest.

 

~Ten~

Pearl insisted that Noah take the Fourth of July weekend off. She didn’t want her best worker burning out. It didn’t take a lot to convince him; he worked every weekend since school let out and he was ready for a break. John suggested they all spend the day at Keystone Lake and Miranda said they should rent a cabin for the night, which was hailed as an even better idea.

The day of the 4th dawned bright and hot, and as they loaded up the cars there was a buzz of excitement. The Miller family had grown and spread over the years; Jeremy was on the East Coast getting his medical degree and Jane was married and living in Arkansas. She had two small boys of her own. Miranda loved that John was a grandpa; his beard was flecked with gray now, and the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes did nothing to detract from his appearance.

Only Joe, who was 25 and working on a seismic exploration team in Eastern Oklahoma, and Jacob, who was 24 and just received his Masters in Engineering, were able to come with John and Julie. Noah liked the two brothers and was looking forward to spending more time with them.

They waved to him from across the street as they secured a small trailer to John’s Tahoe, upon which sat Joe’s latest toy, a bright blue jet ski.

“Need any help?” Noah called.

“Nope, I think we got it.” Jacob smiled. “Looking so forward to this.”

“Me, too. It’s been a long time since I just laid around and didn’t do anything.”

“It’s true,” Miranda said as she walked out of the house with a cooler in her arms. “Kid works harder than I do.”

“Good morning!” John called to her, also laden with a cooler. “Geez, do you think we’re taking enough beer?”

“No,” Joe and Jacob replied in unison.

Julie walked over to talk to Noah, her hair in two dark braids down her back, a floppy hat framing her face, which was scrubbed clean of any makeup. She tilted it back with her eyes closed, facing the rising sun which was already baking the landscape at 9:30 a.m.

She sighed. “Feels good. Can’t wait to get a little color!”

“I’ll probably fry,” Noah laughed. “I never tan; I only sunburn.”

“Well, take my hat, then,” she said, pressing it over his head. “You’ll need it more than me. I turn brown instantly. Mom used to call me her wild Indian in the summer.”

“I remember that,” Noah said, striking a pose in the sun hat and making her laugh.

“Julie, you look so pretty today,” Miranda said, coming around the side of the car to give her a hug. Julie made a face.

“She’s right, you do,” Noah said. “You look beautiful.”

“Oh shut up.” Julie blew a raspberry at him.

“Why? Somebody going to sing the kissing song at us?”

“Hey Miranda, do you need us to take anything in the Tahoe?” Joseph asked, coming across the street to examine the contents of her Accord, which was packed tight enough to explode. “And who’s singing the kissing song?”

“No one!” Julie said loudly. “I’m going to go make sure I got everything.” She fled back across the street and disappeared into the house.

“Thanks, Joe, I think we might need you to take a thing or two for us,” Miranda answered. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to see out the back window.”

“I think Julie wanted to ride with us if we can make room.” Noah said, opening the back door and catching a landslide of inflatable water toys.

Here, hand me those,” Joe said. “You get that stuff. There’s plenty of room in the Tahoe.”

Things were finally sorted out and the families pulled slowly out of their driveways, John leading the way. The drive east took just over an hour, and by the time they pulled up to the cabin the sun was high in the sky and the air was oppressively hot. They unloaded the cars, and it was decided that choosing rooms was a job for much, much later. Within twenty minutes everyone was in a bathing suit and headed for the dock.

The lake sparkled and the birds were raucous in the oaks and pines, flitting from one to the other and whistling their nameless tunes. The throbbing drone of cicadas joined with them to form the background music to an Oklahoma summer. Miranda and John brought up the rear, laden with bags, towels, toys and blankets. Julie walked in step with her brothers and Noah.

“Isn’t it great?” she exclaimed. “Look at that water; that lake is mine, bitches!”

She sprang forward, half a second ahead of the boys. Pounding across the wooden walkway and past the paddleboat anchored there, they reached the end of the dock at the same time and catapulted into the water. Noah whooped as he came up for air, shaking his hair out of his face.

“This feels great, Mama. Come in; the water is perfect.”

Miranda spread the blanket carefully on the deck and arranged her bags and shoes on the edges so it couldn’t blow away. Setting down the stack of towels, she stripped off her gauzy cover-up and walked to the ladder at the opposite end.

“Just jump in, Mama,” Noah suggested.

“I’m afraid I’d lose my suit if I did that.” She laughed, adjusting her bikini. John realized he was staring and tried to pull his eyes away.

Julie smiled. “Hey, let’s all go skinny dipping tonight!”

“I’m not sure how appropriate that would be.” John protested.

“Of course it’s not appropriate; that’s the point,” Julie said, laughing. “At any rate, I’m going to do it. I’ve always wanted to.”

“Are you getting in or what, Dad?” Jacob asked.

“Indeed, I am. Everybody out of the way. Let me show you how it’s done.” With a running start he threw himself off the end of the dock, arcing high into the air before tucking his knees to his chest and landing with a terrific splash. They all applauded as his head broke the surface.

“I think that was the best cannonball I’ve ever seen,” Miranda said. “I’m impressed, sir.”

“Why thank you ma’am,” John said, and tipped an imaginary cap to her.

They spent the afternoon in the water, racing and paddle-boating and making a complete mockery of synchronized swimming. Joseph and Jacob unloaded the Jet Ski, taking the first turn with it and coming back to report, with delighted smiles, that beautiful girls occupied the dock to the south. Miranda broke out sandwiches and chips from her bags, and John hauled the cooler of beer and soda down from the house.

They sat on the end of the dock with their feet in the water as the sun sank lower and painted the sky a brilliant burnt orange. Miranda sighed with contentment.

“Is there anything better than this?” she asked. “I mean, really? What could be better than friends and family and the lake and summertime?”

“Nothing,” said almost everyone in unison.

“I think I’ll see if I can join the party next door,” Joe said, turning to his brother. “Are you coming with me?”

Joe and Jacob climbed onto the Jet Ski and roared off down the lake.

John looked concerned but Noah smiled. He knew the boys’ numbers; numbers that were far in the future, and he wasn’t worried.

“It’s almost dark enough. Let’s blow something up,” Noah suggested. They cleaned up the dock, hauling everything back to the cabin and leaving it in a pile on the living room floor.

“Vacation sure turns me into a slob,” Miranda said.

“Vacation?” Noah asked, incredulous. “Mama, I hate to break it to you, but it’s not just vacation.”

“Oh, hush.”

“Your secret’s out, Miranda.” John said. “Not that it was much of a secret…”

“You guys are mean.”

She pouted, and John pulled her into a hug, laughing. The touch of her sun-warmed skin was almost more than he could take, however, and he released her quickly, striding briskly to locate the bag from the roadside fireworks stand.

Noah found it buried under an avalanche of linens and held it aloft, triumphantly. They went to the hard-packed clay that led to the dock, chose a launch site, and John held his hand out for the first rocket.

Suddenly uneasy, Noah gripped the neck of the bag tighter and hesitated. The contents of the bag seemed alive and malevolent, writhing like snakes and pushing to get out. Sweat broke out on his forehead.

“Noah? Are you OK?” Julie asked.

“I don’t know.” he said, faintly, waiting. John looked at him curiously and then at Miranda, who raised her eyebrows but said nothing. Julie touched his arm and felt it, too; a chill ran down her back and caused the small hairs on her neck to prickle.

“What is it?” she asked. “The fireworks?”

“I think so,” he said, staring at the bag. “Or, maybe. Maybe just one.”

He tipped the bag onto the ground, resisting the urge to stomp on all the explosives like deadly scorpions. The brightly colored packages with names like “Medusa” and “Golden Sunflower,” tumbled inertly to the soil.

Noah scanned them, looking for anything to betray danger. One by one he picked them up and as he reached for the fifth—a $15 “moon rocket” that promised to explode in a shower of multi-colored spirals of sparks—he recoiled. A sudden image of blood and fire and hands and faces blown to smithereens swam before his eyes; screams unuttered echoed in his mind. He looked at Julie and she was pale.

“That one,” she nodded. “It’s defective.”

“How on earth can you tell?” John asked. He bent over the pile of fireworks and examined them. It was all Noah could do to stay upright; he felt faint with horror but as John reached for the defective firework, he batted his hand away and grabbed it. He ran as fast as he could to the edge of the dock, and pitched it as hard as he could into the dark glassy water.

“What’s going on, Julie?” John asked Julie.

“You just have to trust him, Dad.”

Noah returned, walking slowly and looking weak. “Probably a short fuse,” he said.

They all agreed to forego fireworks, and simply enjoy what the neighbors shot off instead. The bag was dumped in the trash and Miranda went inside to find more snacks. They walked back to the dock and sat in the dark, eating chocolate chip cookies and watching the explosions around them, exclaiming breathlessly over the biggest ones.

Noah stretched out on the weathered grey wood to gaze at the night sky, feeling the cathartic effects of chocolate sooth his nerves. He stopped thinking of the what ifs. Julie lay next to him and they took turns picking out constellations.

“There’s Orion,” Noah said. “I always find him, he’s an easy one. And the Big Dipper.”

“There,” Julie said. “Cassiopeia, that W-looking thing.”

Noah yawned. “I wonder if we could rearrange the stars.”

They lay in silence for a moment and then, with a smile in her voice, Julie spoke.

“Polaris,” she said, pointing. “Let’s bring it closer to that little star next to it.”

“What if it works?” Noah asked. “Do you realize what that will do to celestial navigation? Talk about an action with consequences.”

“Fine. We’ll move the little star closer to Polaris.”

They focused on the little star. Minutes passed, and nothing happened. They looked at one another and laughed with relief.

“How terrifying would it be to have that much power?” Julie asked.

“What are you two talking about over there?” Miranda called from across the dock.

“We can’t rearrange the stars,” Noah answered.

“Oh.” Pause. “Well, that’s good, right?”

“Miranda, are you going to skinny dip with me, or what?” Julie asked. “Noah says he won’t and I know Dad won’t, but I really want to. Will you?”

“Of course I will,” Miranda answered without hesitation, standing. “Now?”

Julie hopped up.

“Now, wait a minute.” John said, clambering to his feet. “I think I’ll just head back to the house then, if you’re determined.”

“Dad,” Julie exclaimed. “You’re blushing! I can see it in the dark.”

“Don’t torment your father, Julie,” Noah scolded. “I’ll go with you, Mr. Miller. Personally, I don’t want some fish thinking there’s a new and delicious variety of worm in the water.”

“Worm?” Julie asked, eyebrows raised.

“All right. Sea snake.” Noah said, grinning.

“It’s not that I don’t want to stay,” John stammered. Miranda giggled. “Are you sure you’ll be all right, I mean? It’s not really safe, swimming in the dark you know.”

“Oh, Dad, come on,” Julie groaned. “We’re just going to jump in and jump out again. I promise.”

He tried to smile but between the blushing and the worrying he was unsuccessful. He and Noah walked slowly up the path, where they sat on the deck and listened to the women shrieking and splashing.

“Beautiful night,” John said.

“Sure is.”

“Thanks for saving my life earlier. Or my hand. Or, whatever.”

“I don’t know that you would have died, exactly. But it wasn’t going to be pretty.”

“I believe you.”

There was silence for a moment, and more shrieking floated up through the tree tops.

“Is that happy screaming, you think?” John asked anxiously.

“Definitely happy.” Noah said “Besides, I think they’re done now. See, they’re coming up the path.”

“Clothes on?”

“Clothes on.” Noah laughed.

“Oh, thank God. No. That didn’t come out right.”

“I think I know what you mean, Mr. Miller.” You could light a fire from the heat coming off his face, Noah thought with a grin.

The women came up the deck stairs and stood dripping before them, elated.

“Fun?” John asked.

“Fun,” Julie said, flinging herself into an Adirondack chair and giggling. “It’s like swimming in space. Scary, but fun.”

“Well, let’s break out the champagne then,” John said. He went to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of sparkling wine and four flutes. “I wanted to bring some bubbly, just for fun. I’ll even let you have a sip, my darling daughter, although you disregard my better judgments and worry me silly.”

“What about Miranda?” Julie protested. “She worried and disregarded you, but you’re only picking on me. Does she get champagne, too?”

“Miranda is a grown woman who can do as she pleases, obviously. I am not the boss of her.”

“Yeah,” Miranda said, grinning. “Now hand over the glass.”

John passed out the glasses and poured the wine. They sat in silence, enjoying the sounds of the summer night and the last of the fireworks exploding above them. Lifting his glass, he cleared his throat.

“To not dying while skinny dipping,” he said.

“To not dying while lighting fireworks,” Noah added.

“To not dying, at all,” Julie said.

“Nobody gets to die,” Miranda laughed. “To us, forever and ever.”

They clinked their glasses together and drank.

“Think I’ll go figure out which bed is mine,” Noah said after a few minutes. “I’m really tired.”

“I’ll come with you,” Julie offered. “I’m getting eaten by mosquitos.”

Saying their good nights and bestowing kisses, Noah and Julie went inside, leaving their parents on the deck. The night was breezy and warm but the thick humidity had lifted. From the woods they could hear scurrying creatures going about their nocturnal business. Miranda told John the bad dreams were getting more frequent, and more disturbing.

“Noah’s heading into his last year of high school,” he said. “Maybe you’re anxious about that? Sending him into the great unknown has got to be stressful for you.”

“Maybe,” Miranda sighed and drank the last of her champagne. It was true. Thinking of Noah leaving made her heart sink. “I don’t know what I’ll do without him. Do you think Hugh represents that fear of letting him go?”

“I think he could. Dreams are almost always symbolic, aren’t they? I think it’s much more likely than Hugh coming back to harm Noah.”

Miranda nodded, slowly. She had to admit that when it was said out loud, it sounded completely ridiculous. The idea of Hugh caring anything about what she and Noah were doing after thirteen years was ludicrous.

“What about Noah?” John continued. “Has he felt anything ominous lately? Does he have bad dreams? Anything about Hugh?”

“He says he hasn’t, which makes me feel better. If something bad is going to happen, he’d feel it, of all people.”

John looked at his hands, still firmly attached to his arms, and suddenly felt a great sense of gratitude towards Miranda’s son.

“You need to resolve these issues with Noah before you lose any more sleep,” he said.

“Yes,” Miranda said, feeling lighter. “I will. I feel sure that’s all it is now. I always feel better after talking to you, John.”

“Shucks,” he said, gathering up her hand. “What are friends for?”

“Isn’t this great?” Miranda asked. “I have really missed hanging out with those two kids of ours. We used to make time for it, remember?”

“The years have flown, if I may be maudlin. Let’s take them out to eat one of these weekends; do you think we could? Before schools starts up again? And maybe see a movie? Like we used to.”

“That is a great idea.” She said, smiling.

Standing, he held his hand out to Miranda, who took it and rose to her feet, as well. For a moment they stood hand in hand, and then she moved beneath his arm for a hug. He held her tightly, breathing in her heady scent, a mixture of patchouli and sweat and suntan lotion. The warmth of her skin filled him with longing and the desire that dozed on and off in his heart came fully awake with a roar.

Heart beating faster, he reached for her chin with one, trembling hand and lifted her mouth to his own, braced for rejection. She met his lips and turned towards him, bringing both arms around his neck and melting into his embrace with an ease that answered his own longing more than any words could have.

With an enormous crashing that made them both jump, Joseph and Jacob came stumbling up the stairs to the deck, alternating between raucous cackling and shushing each other. Declaring their undying love for girls named Lisa and Linda, they giggled and clapped Miranda and John on the backs, describing the events of the night in tipsy, if not meticulous detail, interrupting one another constantly.

By the time they finished and staggered to bed, it was well past 2 a.m. and Miranda was asleep in her chair. Shaking her gently, John helped her up and put her in the nicest bedroom, noting with a thankful heart that Noah and Julie put sheets on all the beds in the house before climbing into the bunks in the family room.

With a sigh of regret and longing, he collapsed onto the couch and fell asleep to the glow of the TV.

 

~Eleven~

He would have been out prison sooner if it wasn’t for Fatass. He just couldn’t let it go. He couldn’t believe that Hugh knew Miranda and her son, couldn’t stop talking about what a coincidence it was, couldn’t stop acting like it was some cosmic setup for them to be the best friends, ever.

In the weight room, Fatass would wave at him from the window, yelling encouragement. In the mess hall, he would plunk his tray down next to Hugh and eat in his disgusting, ravenous way, begging for whatever food Hugh scorned. And in the yard he was his shadow, if his shadow had been an amorphous blob of sycophantic desperation.

Hugh could have handled this. He could have handled the ingratiating smile, the unctuous manners, the desperation in the man’s eyes, and the constancy of his devotion. He could have handled this, he would have been fine going along, day after endless day, being the object of the man’s singular attention. But the talking. The goddam, ceaseless, ever-fucking-lasting talking.

He hadn’t meant to do it. He hadn’t planned it. But the day had started out crappy; he woke with a violent start from a nightmare in which he was falling into an abyss, and punched the concrete wall hard enough to raise a large bruise on his knuckles. After breakfast he was informed that his therapist, Serena, had the flu and would not be in to teach her yoga class.

Disappointed and weary, Hugh was interrupted in his daily affirmations by Fatass, who chortled when he heard them and asked if Hugh truly believed they would work. From there he launched into a story about how he wanted to be a fireman as a kid, but the other kids made fun of him.

He blithered on, completely oblivious to the danger he was courting. Serena’s voice in Hugh’s head was no longer working. She was telling him to concentrate on his breath, to listen to the in and out of it, the sound of it like the ocean lapping the beach and wasn’t that soothing? She was telling him he could do anything, that he did not have to be controlled by his anger, that he had power over what he wanted and what he wanted right then was to lay down on his bunk and tune out the annoyance.

Only he didn’t. He didn’t lay down on his bunk and tune Fatass out. He wanted to punch him, hard, right in the gonads, wherever they might lie buried beneath that enormous paunch. He wanted to grab ahold of them and squeeze until the man’s face turned purple; he wanted to yank hard until Fatass bled out his urethra, and to slam his head against the wall until his face was jelly.

And so he did.

By the time the guards got to him and dragged him away, Fatass was lying inertly on the floor in the fetal position, blood pouring from his nose and mouth.

Hugh was put in solitary confinement for a month, a punishment he found beautifully welcome, and laughed loudly and rather maniacally for the first hour from nothing more than relief at not having to hear a single human voice.

He was not put up for parole at the end of the year. Nor the year after. But after that, he finally got a break.

Noah Knows, Part Three, Chapters 4-8

~Four~

 

Finals week was over, and Noah hadn’t bothered to study. He simply concentrated when he needed an answer and it floated up through the page like a bobber on the end of a fishing line. Answers were his fish, and he caught each one effortlessly. He flew through his physics test with no effort at all.

He could have easily been at the top of his class, but he had no desire for the notoriety. He threw in enough wrong answers to manage a B average in everything from history to American Lit. He practiced self-sabotage in his self-guided math courses, feigning indifference and sudden bouts of incomprehension. Guidance counselors and teachers encouraged him to work harder, knowing he was capable of far more, but he resisted them with a smile of nonchalance.

A state school was good enough for him, and he thought it ought to be good enough for them. He did get a little careless on the ACT and pulled a 32, kicking himself for the excitement it generated.

When asked what he wanted to do with his life, he shrugged and evaded, saying “business” for those who simply had to know, business being the great catch-all for undecided college freshman.

Truthfully, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. Had he wanted, he could probably be one of the world’s greatest mathematicians. He could probably be famous, have theorems named after him and discuss set theory in obtuse and inscrutable language. Despite all his dexterity with numbers and equations, however, he had grown weary of them.

He couldn’t see himself waiting tables when he was thirty or forty, but then again, why not? Sometimes he stood in front of the mirror and concentrated on his own face as hard as he could, hoping that something would come through, that he might see numbers of his own. He never did. That would be far too useful he thought, wryly. It just seemed he should be allowed to see his own death, since he was privy to so many others.

His friend Robert was going to die at sixty-four, of liver failure. Danny, who became a good friend after his triumph over the bully Gary (who was now an All-State linebacker on the high school football team), of colon cancer at eighty-two. Brian, a geek of a kid he had befriended in seventh grade, was slated for death at one-hundred-and-one, of nothing more than old age, he knew. That one made him laugh. He didn’t realize old age could be a cause of death.

His friends were going to live long lives, hopefully as full of wonder and beauty as one could hope. He wished he could say the same for himself.

Then there was Julie. She was one of a handful of people without numbers. Mama, John Miller, his computer science teacher and a bum at the corner of Utica and 15th street were the others. He didn’t know why they didn’t have numbers. Maybe their lives were in such flux that even fate couldn’t pin them down.

Perhaps this was why he kept trying to change things even when Julie insisted it was hopeless. The arbitrary nature of the numbers made him want to believe they were not immutable; if fate didn’t know for some, perhaps it was wrong about everyone. Maybe it was just a suggestion; a strong suggestion, but a suggestion nonetheless.

Noah contemplated this as he sat with his friends in his living room, consuming bags of chips and liter bottles of soda as they reviewed their summer plans.

“I’m going to be a lifeguard again. It’s the best job in the world,” Brian said, finishing off a bottle of Pepsi and releasing a wall-shaking belch. “Get a really great tan, watch all the hot girls, I hardly have to move. The most I did all last summer was blow on a whistle and tell kids to stop running.”

Robert groaned. “My dad says I have to get something that will look good on a resume this year. No more dicking around. He got me a job at his office, can you imagine? All summer with him looking over my shoulder. How am I ever going to relax?”

“I’m sorry, dude,” Danny said. “At least you got something lined up. My mom’s gonna kill me if I don’t find something quick.”

“I think Pearl’s is hiring for the summer. Maybe you could look there,” Julie suggested.

Danny crumpled his bag of chips and lay back in a bean bag chair.

“I wish things were easy, like when we were kids,” he said. “Stuff was so much simpler then.”

“Yeah,” Julie sighed. “Those were the days.” What are they talking about? she asked Noah, silently.

No idea, he sent back. I think their childhoods were mighty different from ours.

“Those were the days?” Miranda gasped dramatically, walking in from work. “Bemoaning our collective fates? It must be rough to be seventeen, cute, and still living at home.”

“Cut us some slack, Miranda,” Brian said, sitting up and turning to look at her. “Surely you remember what it was like to be broke and not taken seriously.”

“I’m still broke,” she laughed. “But I’m old. And being taken seriously is seriously overrated.”

“You aren’t old,” Brian protested. “You look about thirty, tops.”

“Aren’t you sweet,” she said. “Even though you’re a terrible liar.”

She waved as she walked up the stairs to her bedroom.

“Your mom really is hot, Noah,” Danny said, sliding further into his chair and closing his eyes. “She is one hot mama.”

“Shut up, already,” Julie said, kicking his leg. “You say that every time.”

“He’s right,” Brian said.

“The guys think you’re hot, Mama!” Noah shouted up the stairs.

They could hear Miranda giggle as Danny and Brian jumped up to beat Noah with pillows. Noah threw a few friendly punches as he fended them off, and suddenly Danny and Brian began beating one another, instead. They stumbled around the living room like marionettes, swinging wildly and sputtering invectives, not quite in control of their own bodies.

“Why are you hitting me?” Brian shrieked.

“You started it; why are you hitting me?” Danny demanded.

Noah extracted himself from their tussle and Julie gave him a wink.

You’re welcome, she said.

 

~Five~

 

You drink too much, Miranda.

The voice in her head scolded her, but she poured the whiskey anyway. Sitting on her bed, she heard the tumult of adolescent voices fade away as the front door slammed, and she smiled. They were good boys, good friends to Noah, and she was grateful. Tipping the tumbler back her tired body immediately relaxed.

Do yoga instead. It’s better for you.

It sounded a little bit like her mother.

Shut the hell up, she told it, draining the glass.

Drinking alone is the benchmark of an alcoholic. The voice was persistent. What next? Drinks at 8 a.m.? Flasks hidden at work?

She shoved the bottle back into her dresser drawer and slammed it.

“Happy now?” she muttered. There was no reply.

“You really are going nuts, Miranda.” she said. “Having whole conversations with yourself.”

She pulled off her ponytail holder and brushed out her hair in front of the mirror, then leaned in for a closer examination. She traced the lines of crow’s feet around her eyes and noticed the deepening creases on her forehead and around her mouth. Well earned, she thought. The skin on her neck had a vaguely crepe-y look about it, which alarmed her somewhat. She smiled brightly, scrutinizing her teeth, and considered some whitening strips.

She sat back again and tossed her hair, striking a pose. Overall, it was a serviceable face.

And Noah’s friends think you’re hot, don’t forget. She laughed out loud in the empty room. She wanted to reach for the liquor bottle again, but she resisted. If she was going to drink, she didn’t have to drink alone. She had friends for that. She picked up the phone.

So there, voice. So there.

Nancy arrived with wine and chocolate and Hannah brought frozen pizza and a package of Miranda’s favorite M&M cookies, and together they toasted their longstanding friendship and dug messily into one another’s lives.

It was a pleasant way to spend a Friday night, and Miranda felt her stress lessen with her friends near. Together, they had weathered grief and trauma and celebrated weddings and births and promotions, and without them Miranda knew she wouldn’t have survived.

Nancy was married and subsequently divorced and was currently in a relationship with her dog, claiming she wanted nothing more. Hannah was married and had three kids. They lived by the unspoken agreement that when one of them needed a girls’ night, the other two would come running.

“So what’s up, buttercup?” Hannah asked, once they were firmly ensconced around the kitchen island, wine glasses full to their rims. “Is there a reason for this particular get-together, or did you just need generalized support?”

“My brain told me that only alcoholics drink alone, so I invited you guys over,” Miranda replied.

“We’re just here so you can drink without guilt?” Nancy asked.

“It’s a good enough reason for me,” Hannah snorted.

Miranda sighed. “I’m worried about Noah, I guess. He just seems so sad sometimes.”

They didn’t know about Noah, of his awful talent that was more of a curse. It was a load that bent his shoulders and stole his smile more often than Miranda cared to admit. They knew he was a good kid, a thoughtful kid, and that he went through more trauma in his childhood than anyone should have in a lifetime. That was the extent of it, and that’s how Miranda was going to keep it. Not like they’d believe her, anyway.

“They all get so moody, don’t they?” Hannah asked. “My Esme just up and burst into tears yesterday simply because her favorite shirt was in the wash, can you believe that? I don’t know if I’ll survive ninth grade sometimes.”

“Noah’s such a good kid,” Nancy said. “He works hard, and he gets good grades, right? Do you think he needs more therapy? I know he had some after the kidnapping, but was it enough? Maybe some stuff is rising to the surface,”

“I don’t know.” Miranda said. “Maybe. When he was tiny, they said he’d probably be fine, that he was dealing with the trauma in a healthy way. But maybe he does need to talk to somebody.”

“I know I would,” Hannah said. “Just thinking about it makes me shudder.”

I don’t get a choice to simply not think about it. I had to live it, Miranda thought, with some resentment. She wished John was in town. He understood her best.

“I just want him to be happy,” she said. Maybe he needs to find a girl.”

“What about Julie?” Nancy asked. “I thought they were an item.”

“I don’t know what they are,” Miranda said. “Right now I think they’re such close friends they can’t imagine anything else. They have a bond, that’s for sure. They’ve both been through a lot. I wouldn’t mind if they became more than friends. I love that girl.”

“Be careful what you wish for,” Hannah said with a grimace. “Peter has a girlfriend now, did I tell you? And between his work and her we hardly ever see him anymore. I’m afraid they’re getting too serious, too fast. That’s a whole headache all its own, believe me. I have begged David to talk to him about being careful but the man is so terrified to have that conversation! I’m afraid it’s going to fall to me along with everything else.”

“Noah will be all right, hon,” Nancy said after a while. She poured Miranda more wine. “What about you? Have you ever thought you might need more therapy? I’m worried about you.”

“I know you love your therapist,” Miranda said. “I’m just not sure I want to go. The year I went seemed like enough. It’s just overwhelming, dredging everything up again.”

“It is overwhelming, at first,” Nancy said. “It took me a year just to open up enough to get to the heart of my problems. But it feels so good to talk to somebody. Friends are one thing, but there’s something cleansing about talking to somebody who’s more impartial, you know what I mean?”

“I do. There are just so many places I don’t want to revisit.”

“But you have to, if you want healing to come. Your mind and emotions are just like your physical body, my therapist says. If something is broken, it can get set that way. So then you limp along through life. I don’t like to see you limping, honey. You and Noah deserve better.”

“What if the break is so bad they have to break it again just to set it properly?” Miranda asked. She shuddered at the thought.

“It’s painful, but honey, where are you getting on your own? You’re worried that you drink too much. You’ve completely closed yourself off to finding a new love.”

“I know that’s true,” Hannah interjected. “You don’t go on any of the dates we’ve set up for the past ten years. Instead, you have one night stands with just anybody.”

“I do not have them with just anybody,” Miranda protested. “That last guy–that was a fluke—I did not mean to do that. Why didn’t you guys stop me?”

“As if we could stop you from doing anything once you get a few drinks in you,” Nancy said. “And we did try to stop you, for the record. Especially John. He really didn’t want you to take that guy home. He was really upset.”

“What about John?” Hannah asked, suddenly. “I don’t know why you guys aren’t together by now. You’re practically inseparable. Why isn’t he here tonight, anyway? And why haven’t you slept with him?”

“He’s out of town,” Miranda said, swirling her cabernet. “And I’ve told you this a million times; we are friends, nothing more. I don’t want to ruin a friendship with sex.”

No one is going to be Mike again.” Nancy said. “But you’ve got to let go of the past. John loves you, I can see it when he looks at you. You ought to act on that.”

Miranda felt frustration growing in the pit of her stomach and heat rising to her cheeks. Neither Nancy nor Hannah knew what losing the love of your life felt like, how the grief still twisted in her chest and made it hard to breathe, how the black hole it left threatened to swallow her whole.

Mike still lived and smiled in her mind, still stroked her cheek in her dreams and told her he loved her. The air barely needed to move before she smelled his rugged scent that was like a field of grass and freshly cut pine. He filled her and emptied her at the same time, leaving her euphoric, then drained and stricken. The one night stands distracted from the pain for a brief moment, just as wine or whiskey distracted and softened the blows that loss hammered home each day.

Still, everything was temporary, and every morning the grief was waiting as she opened her eyes. John understood. But she needed his friendship far, far more than she needed his body.

His cute little body. She smiled in spite of herself.

“Miranda?”

“I can’t explain it,” she said. “I guess I need to be done with men entirely. Nobody’s going to fill the void that Mike left.”

“Nobody can replace him. He was one in a million,” Hannah said. “Just stay open to possibility, like Nancy says. Even though she doesn’t take her own advice at all.”

“Open to possibility,” Miranda repeated, nodding. The oven timer beeped from the kitchen, and she rose to retrieve the pizza. Her friends began arguing over Nancy’s devotion to her toy poodle.

She was relieved that the focus had shifted, and hoped it would stay that way.

 

~Six~

 

Noah and Julie ended their shifts together and walked out the side door of the restaurant. The air was refreshing compared to the miasma of burgers and grease that filled the dining room. Noah put his arm around Julie’s shoulders as they walked through the parking lot. School had been out for two weeks but the summer heat had not yet gathered enough strength to be truly oppressive.

“Grandpa still hasn’t gotten you to give up the bike?” she asked, nodding towards his blue Suzuki. “I know he wants you to get a car.”

“We’ll see how much longer I can put him off.” Noah answered. “I’m not giving her up any time soon. Want to take a ride?”

“Do you have my helmet with you?”

“As always,” Noah opened the bike’s pannier and handed it to her. “Where do you want to go? It’s only midnight.”

“How about the duck pond?”

Woodward Park was bright, the full moon on the pond illuminating the trees as effectively as the lamps that dotted the landscaping. Lovers walked arm in arm or snuggled on benches, and the traffic noise from the highway was barely discernable in the distance.

Noah had a bag of day-old bread Pearl gave him and handed half of the loaf to Julie before heading towards the bridge that connected the two banks. Two dozen ducks and geese were swimming slow circles at the far end of the pond, and they came quickly, squawking. Noah and Julie tore hunks of bread and threw them, and they were gobbled up almost as soon as they hit the water.

“I wonder if they’ve ever had a midnight snack before,” Noah mused.

Julie pointed at a small duck in the back of the pack. “Look at that little one. She can’t get any.” With delicate aim, she threw a piece of bread at the small bird, but it was snatched away by a drake.

“Butthead,” Julie muttered. Suddenly the flock of birds parted down the center and a perfect aisle formed between them. The small duck paddled through it like a knight on his way to coronation, as though pulled by an invisible cord. Julie bent to place a piece of bread directly in front of her, which was swiftly and–Noah liked to think–gratefully eaten. She drew out her ever-present notepad and began to sketch the scene.

“You never play by the rules, do you?” he asked.

“The asshole rules?” she asked.

“Survival of the fittest.”

“That’s the one. I notice you don’t like it a whole lot, either.”

“I try to be impartial and let things happen, but it seems like it only gets harder and harder as I get older,” he admitted.

“You were more philosophical about things when you were younger. And I wanted to change everything. It’s confusing,” she said, finishing her sketch and straightening up. “I stopped trying to figure out why we have power a long time ago. But I do like to mess with things.”

“Like overly-greedy ducks.”

“Why not? It isn’t like it really matters to anybody else whether a little duck gets some bread. It doesn’t really change anything. It only matters to the duck.”

“But maybe that duck will grow up to become a great motivational duck-speaker in the future. You don’t know.” Noah smiled. “Everything we do changes something else, somehow. Like the butterfly that flaps its wings on one continent and causes a tsunami on another.”

“Now you sound like my dad. Our experiment with the lottery wasn’t catastrophic, was it?”

“No. But who knows what paths we’d be on now if we hadn’t done it?”

“I’m almost sure I like this path better than the other one.”

“I wonder sometimes,” he said. Sometimes I think about the what-ifs. Like what if I had never gotten kidnapped and we had never moved. I never would have met you. What if the bad things lead to good things and the good things lead to bad things? I’m conflicted. Sometimes I feel no smarter than that little duck, wondering what just happened.”

“Which is why I love you so much.”

“I love you too, Julie.”

“Well, that’s good to know.”

“You already knew it.”

“I suppose I did.”

They stood in silence then, using up the last of the bread and watching the birds disperse, who lost interest as soon as the final crust was thrown.

Walking back to the bike, Julie lingered a moment to sketch a beautiful spiderweb, stretched between the branches of an azalea bush. The black and yellow orb-weaver in the center was magnificent, stretched out in the center of the strands, awaiting its next meal. A colorful moth the size of a doily, all flutter and swoop, careened suddenly into the edge of the web and flailed violently. The spider leapt into action, racing towards the hapless insect.

Julie frowned, feeling the whole trajectory of evolution; she was bound, but not committed.

Before it could begin the grisly job of wrapping its dinner, the moth gave a jolt on the sticky fibers and was free, winging its way over the bushes once more and into the darkness. Julie glanced over her shoulder to see if Noah had noticed, but he was busy at his motorcycle, strapping on his helmet.

“Sorry spider, she muttered, hurrying back to the bike. “Better luck next time.”

 

~Seven~

 

Miranda awoke in the thickest hour of the night and sat upright, trying to bring her breath back to normal. Not since Noah was five years old; not since her world had come apart at the seams did she have a dream as vivid and bright as this one. As sure as she was sitting drenched in sweat, some unnamed terror was about to be unleashed once again on herself and her son.

She staggered upright and groped her way to the hallway, glancing both ways as she crossed lest there be some vestige of a demonic entity awaiting her, having escaped from the confines of her own tumultuous brain through some loophole in subconscious protocol. There was nothing there, and she continued on to Noah’s room.

Standing over him, bathed in moonlight from his window, she felt her natural heartbeat slowly return. He was wrapped haphazardly in the sheets without any sign of distress. She stood for a long time, listening to him breathe, and gazed around his room, remembering the days when Winnie The Pooh and Elmo had decorated the walls, and marveling at how quickly they had been replaced by posters of obscure bands and Julie’s artwork.

Noah stirred and sighed, brow furrowing for a moment as he mumbled incoherently. She leaned forward and brought his comforter up around his shoulders, tucking it around his neck.

“Hugh.” he breathed. “No, Hugh.”

She froze, icy fingers tracing every vertebra along her back. She listened intently, but Noah only turned over and began snoring softly. The dream she had just left was in her face now, floating there in Noah’s room, wreaking havoc in her mind that turned the peaceful scene sour and made her heart begin a rapid timpani solo against her ribs.

Her nightmare featured the hulking figure again, a great shapeless form that drew closer and then suddenly dissolved into Hugh, larger than she remembered and covered in scrawling black script that she could not make out in the pouring rain. Noah stood beside her as usual, still tiny and clinging to her hand, still with his mouth stitched shut, still communicating to her in her mind.

This time he only said Mama, run. Mama, we have to run but she had no power to move, and her arms hung uselessly at her sides as Hugh approached. His eyes were yellow and filled with rage and he reached out, mouth moving wordlessly but no doubt describing the plans he had for her.

She could hear the Camaro’s engine in the distance and desperately hoped it would mow Hugh down and leave him crumpled in the mud-splashed gutter before he could grab her. Instead he reached for Noah, encircling his neck with his massive hands and lifting him off the ground as his small legs kicked. She pounded on Hugh with her fists, suddenly released from her paralysis, but he was impenetrable as a wall, and Noah’s face turned blue and then black and his body went limp as she screamed and cried and fell on her knees.

Now, in the quiet of Noah’s room, she was on her knees again, softly brushing the blond hair out of his face, tears coursing down her cheeks as she put her face on his mattress and wept. He stirred again and woke up, startled.

“Mama, what’s the matter? What happened?”

She couldn’t speak but only shook her head, trying to make the tears stop, trying desperately to get a grip, but the veil that separated reality from her imagination was shredded. Nothing seemed solid except Noah’s warm hand on her own and she gripped it.

“Mama, it’s OK.” He seemed to understand, as he so often did, and he sat up and took both her hands in his. “It was just a nightmare, Mama.”

“I know–” she managed to choke out. “But it was so real.”

“But it wasn’t. Mama, come here.” He pulled her to her feet and made her sit beside him on the bed. He drew her into a hug. She felt his heartbeat against her ear and it comforted her and she felt her tears subside. Whatever the future held, they would meet it together, and somehow they would be all right.

“Were you having a dream, right before I woke you up?” Miranda asked. “I thought I heard you say something in your sleep?”

He frowned, and shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t remember anything.”

He gave her an extra squeeze and then released her. “Can you go back to sleep? It’s only, what, 3 a.m.?”

“The witching hour,” she said, yawning. “No wonder.”

She left him, stretched out under his blankets, looking smaller than usual, and checked the front door deadbolt before creeping back to bed. Her whole room seemed sinister, however, and she couldn’t get back to sleep. She got up a few hours later to watch the sun rise from the living room windows. Slowly, she got ready for the day and left for work.

Noah heard the door close and rolled over. He slept fitfully, as well, feeling her unrest from across the hallway and the fear that was thick in the air.

He had lied. Bad dreams found him, as well; Joanie came back from the dead, clawing at his bedroom door and calling him in her unctuous, hard voice. A gigantic shape he thought was Mr. McGraw chased him, and he turned just in time to see it was not his old captor but someone new, someone powerfully built with small, yellow eyes. He didn’t want to worry his mother, but something ominous perched inside his brain like a greasy black crow, digging its claws into his subconscious and making him profoundly uneasy.
~Eight~

 

“Do you think dreams can be prophetic?” Miranda asked John one afternoon as they had lunch at the mall. “I mean, not all dreams, but some?”

“Prophetic? Like, they come true?” John asked, stroking his graying beard as he always did.

“Not like, everything that happens in them happens, but maybe they’re a warning that something bad is going to happen?”

“Miranda, what are you trying to say?”

“I keep having this nightmare,” Miranda confessed. “Hugh comes back and tries to kill Noah.”

“Oh, man,” John said. His face was full of concern.

“I’ve had it every week for the last month or so. It’s always the same. I wouldn’t worry, but I had nightmares like it before. Like, when Noah turned five, and all hell broke loose. I had nightmares right before that, of bad things happening.”

Her eyes filled with unexpected tears and spilled over her lashes. She groped in her purse for a tissue.

John shook his head and handed her a napkin. Miranda dabbed at her eyes.

“Do you even know where he is now? Or if he’s out of jail?” he asked.

“I don’t know anything about him,” Miranda said. “I put him out of my head completely. I don’t even remember how long he was supposed to be in jail, except I thought it wasn’t long enough, He’s probably out and living in Mobile. His whole business is there, so that makes sense. John, I’m sure he could figure out where we live; he’s smart. No, he’s more than smart, he’s shrewd, and crafty. He’s a snake. I’m sure he knows we’d move to Tulsa to be near my parents. So he could find us. He could find us and I don’t know what he’d do.”

She started to cry again, the memory of him looming large and terrifying.

John reached across the table and took her hand. “Why would he want to find you guys and get himself in trouble all over again? You had a bad dream; that doesn’t mean it’s going to come true.”

Miranda nodded and inhaled deeply. “He still scares me, after all this time. I thought I put it behind me.” Her eyes reddened again but she put the napkin to her nose, hard, and stopped the tears before they started.

“That was a horrible thing to live through, but look at you. You did. And you’ve done more than just survive; you’ve made a good life for you and Noah.”

“I bring strange men home from bars,” she said.

“Oh, come on. It’s not exactly a habit. You just get a little out of control when you drink too much.”

“I don’t see you pulling crap like that. I feel like I dishonor Mike’s memory every time I do it. Why do I do it?”

“You’re self-medicating, letting yourself get nice and numb. You know this. I wish you wouldn’t do it. I tried to tell you to stop Memorial Day weekend, but you were too far gone at that point. You just laughed. Why don’t you get on some legitimate medication? Maybe some anti-anxiety meds would take away that urge to, you know–engage in risky behavior. You know you’re just looking for something to take away the pain.”

“I don’t feel like I’m in pain,” she said, lying.

“We’re all in pain, Miranda. You told me once not to stuff it, but you’ve stuffed yours so far down you can’t even see it.”

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “I like to think I’m limping along just fine.”

He took his glasses off and polished them on his shirt. “You’ve raised Noah into a fine young man, and you know how ardently I admire you. You’re stronger than you think. Say it with me.”

“I am stronger than I think,” Miranda said, obediently.

“I think you are the strongest person I have ever known, to be quite honest.” John said. “And if that rat bastard Hugh comes after you, I have no doubt you’ll kick him right in his shriveled rat balls.”

Miranda looked through watery eyes at him.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“I don’t know, either. I’m the best friend you have,” John said.

He kissed Miranda’s cheek before they parted. He watched as she walked down the sidewalk and turned the corner before he climbed into his car and headed back to the Tulsa World building. He hated to see her so down, and he hoped his words had been as encouraging to her as she said they were. She definitely looked a little more cheery by the end of their lunch, and that made him happy.

Seeing her always made his day; that had been true for a long time. Almost a year ago he waved to her from across the street as she watered her garden and it hit him full in the face. He loved her, and he had for some time. The exact moment that his care for her had made the leap across the abyss into passion was a mystery to him, but there it was, pumping through his veins and bringing a familiar ache to his heart. It caught him off guard; he went to his room, sat on the end of his bed, and cried.

He couldn’t believe making room for someone else in his heart could happen, and yet it occurred despite himself. Miranda made his days bright again with her smile, her sense of humor, and her friendship, and somehow those things burrowed down deep in his heart, bringing blooms to a garden that laid dormant for so long.

He felt guilt but Jenny told him he had too much to offer to be a hermit. He didn’t need permission from anyone but himself to love again, and so he wrapped it up, put a bow on it, and gave it. If at some point Miranda should feel the same for him, he would be ready. In the meantime, he was content to wait.

Noah Knows, Part Three, Chapters 1-3

Read from the beginning of Part One here

Read from the beginning of Part Two here

 

Part Three

Chapter One

The muscular, handsome man stared into the mirror, doing his daily affirmations. His New Age therapist was a complete wacko, but she was hot as a firecracker and he paid close attention to every word from her mouth, and participated in every class she offered.

Yoga was his favorite. Watching her in her tight cotton yoga pants gave him more than enough fire in his belly. When he got out on parole they hooked up for a year and she demonstrated her downward dog in more ways than one before her wheedling voice had become too much. Always nagging him to let go of his anger and let the universe fill him with joy. What a load of shit.

He liked daily affirmations, though. The idea that he could make things happen with words, that he liked. He was in control. His words became reality. And why not? Wherever he went, people jumped for him.

He stood, locking eyes with his own reflection, and spoke what was not as though it was.

He recited them three times each and nodded. Good. He could almost feel things falling into place. He did affirmations the whole time he was locked up; he said those same words into the piece of polished stainless steel that passed for a mirror in his cell.

He didn’t care if his roommate thought he was insane; he knew better than to say anything, anyway. Hugh wasn’t the biggest man in prison but he was feared, by almost everyone. Before long his roommate started affirmations of his own. Stupid things like I am liked; I am free. He snorted.

You had to stay clean if you wanted to get paroled. You had to be squeaky clean. It wasn’t hard for him. He didn’t have to cringe and hide and try to stay on everyone’s good side. He made it clear from week one that he wasn’t anybody’s bitch, and he rose to the top just like the cream always did. Before long he was managing work crews and giving the guards financial advice.

He took a jar of expensive hair gel and scooped up a dollop, rubbing it vigorously between his palms before slicking it through his graying hair. His square jaw was clean shaven and he had no tattoos. That was important to him. He had refused, more than once, the obligatory prison tattoo.

If you were a badass you didn’t have to write it on your body. He was glad to be out, though he was respected in prison like he was respected in business. A man like himself was respected anywhere. He’d been out almost a year now but he remembered the smell of prison air like it was yesterday. He wasn’t going back, ever. He would go to the morgue first.

He went back to work the day he got out, managing the money he left as smoothly as before. His accounts manager had kept the business going, although he had made a mess of the books. Real estate wasn’t rocket science, but you had to know what you were doing.

His manager groveled, of course, but he fired his ass anyway. He lost a lot of money in the lawsuit. It didn’t surprise him that she filed it, but it did surprise him when she won. How any jury could have sided with her, he didn’t know. The blood pounded in his ears.

He did deep breathing exercises to regain control. Soon, he’d make everything right. He looked in the mirror for one final check. He was looking good. The dark blue Hugo Boss suit was his favorite.

Deciding to do one more series of affirmations just for good measure, Hugh cleared his throat and spoke forcefully.

“Miranda is dead.”

“Miranda is dead.”

“Miranda is dead.”

 

~Two~

The voice was persistent. “Mama.”

“What do you want, Noah?” she snapped. Her head was pounding and without opening her eyes she knew the room was far, far too bright.

There was a deep sigh and she regretted snapping at him.

“I’m sorry, honey. What do you need?”

“The man in your bed needs to go home. Grandma and Grandpa are coming over.”

He sounded exasperated. She opened one eye and frowned.

“Man?”

“The man next to you.”

She opened both eyes and rolled over, taking the sheet with her so she didn’t flash her teen-aged son. Sure enough, there was a man there, snoring. David? Devon? Daniel? She sat up. Noah looked at her with brows raised. God, he was tall.

“I’ll get rid of him,” she said. “Go on to school; don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t have school. It’s Memorial Day.”

Hence her celebration on a Sunday night. She poked the snoring form beside her.

“Hey, dude. Get up. Time to go home.” He rolled over but didn’t wake up. Miranda’s head throbbed. She kicked him. He opened one eye. “Get up, dammit. Time to go.”

He looked from Noah to Miranda several times, confused. “Who is that?” he asked.

“I’m her boy lover and I’m about to kick your ass,” Noah responded.

The guy sat up, found his pants on the floor and worked his way out of the room. Noah turned to leave, too.

“Noah?” Miranda said, laying back carefully on her pillow. “Could you bring me some Advil? Like, six?”

“I’ll bring you four. Six is ridiculous.”

He returned with the pills and a large glass of iced tea. She chugged the glass dry, handed it back to him and flopped on her bed.

“Thank you, baby.”

Noah saw the man to the door and groaned deeply as he shut it behind him. He picked up armfuls of layered newspapers and carried them to the recycling bin. Two boxes of pizza sat on the sofa table with slices moldering beneath their lids. Mama called to him from the bedroom.

“What time are Grandma and Grandpa getting here?”

“Noonish.”

“Why are they coming again?”

“It’s my birthday.”

Miranda grimaced.

“Oh my God…”

“Don’t worry about it. Please. Let’s just move on and have a good day.”

“I’ll get up; I’ll help you clean. You shouldn’t clean on your birthday.”

“It’s almost ten o’clock. If you get in the shower now you might look normal by noon. Please, just take care of yourself. Do me that favor.”

“Don’t tell Grandma I was out drinking last night.”

“Why would I do that? Like I want to hear that conversation again? It’s going to be obvious you were out partying if you don’t get your ass in the bathroom and do something about your face.”

“Brat.”

“Bitch.”

She stuck her tongue out at him. He was turning into such a handsome kid. Big smile, strong jaw, blue eyes. Wicked sense of humor. She didn’t deserve him.

“I love you,” she said, suddenly.

“I know,” he said. “I love you too.”

He shut the door of her room. She struggled up from the mattress and headed to the bathroom, but she turned away in disgust at the devastation in the mirror. God, what a mess. She didn’t mean to get so blasted last night, and definitely didn’t mean to bring somebody home.

Of course, she never did.

She turned the shower to hot and cranked it full blast. She lathered her face and washed away every remnant of makeup that had transformed her appearance overnight from catwalk model to murdered hooker.

When she emerged, the sharp edges of her hangover dulled, she wrapped her hair in a towel and rifled through a heap of clothes to find something moderately clean. She heaved the rest into a laundry basket.

Things just piled up so quickly. Housekeeping seemed less and less important to her. She could smell citrus cleanser and knew Noah was working on the other bathroom. He was a good boy. Maybe this time she wouldn’t get a lecture from her mother about a visit from the health department.

She chose a bright pink blouse from the back of her closet, threw it on and grabbed her last clean pair of pants. She put on just enough makeup to hide the dark circles under her eyes and put some color in her cheeks. The last thing she wanted was an interrogation on how much she drank these days.

She stripped her bed of its sheets that smelled faintly of whiskey and Aqua Velva. More regret and no small bit of shame knocked at the door of her heart but she steadfastly refused to answer.

“Ta-da!” she said to Noah, one arm raised to show off her tidied room.

“Very good,” he said, nodding. “Looks like the room of a normal woman for a change, not some sort of rodent.”

“Oh, come on.” She deflated slightly. “Was it really that bad?”

“I just threw away twenty-eight half-empty boxes of Chinese food, Mama. I counted”

“I really meant to clean up,” she said. “But then everybody was going out and I figured the mess wasn’t going anywhere.”

“It definitely wasn’t. Unless you count what the mice carried away.”

“We have mice? Maybe they’ll eat the roaches.”

“Not while there’s Lo Mein and fried rice on the menu.”

“I can’t win, can I?” Miranda asked. She walked into the living room. “This is an amazing transformation. I forgot we had a floor.”

The doorbell buzzed and Noah took a deep breath.

“Ready?” he asked. Miranda nodded.

Lucy and Dale entered and hugs were exchanged. Lucy carried a large cake, her signature German chocolate three-layer. Seventeen candles were stuck in the top. She placed it on the kitchen counter, glanced around and put her hands on her hips.

“It looks great in here, Noah,” She said.

“You think I can’t clean?” Miranda asked.

“I’m sorry dear. Have you been cleaning?”

“No. It was Noah,” she said, slumping into a chair.

Lucy blew a raspberry at her daughter and hugged her grandson again. “Anyway, it looks a darn sight better than the last time we dropped by.”

“Dropped by being the operative phrase there, Mom. You didn’t even say you were coming over! If you had just given me some warning.”

“Warning? It would have taken more than a warning. This place looked like an episode from that show—what’s that show? Hoarders. Where they’re always finding dead cats buried under mountains of laundry and such.”

“Mom! It was not that bad.”

“If you say so, honey.”

Noah cleared his voice and they stopped abruptly.

“Sorry, Noah. Grandma will try to reign in the lectures for your birthday,’ she said. “So how does it feel to be seventeen?”

“About the same as it did yesterday,” he responded with a smile.

“How’s the restaurant job?” Dale asked.

“Not going to buy a yacht any time soon,” Noah said. “But it’s pretty good money.”

“Have you thought about buying a car? Grandma and I always help with that first car purchase, and we have nightmares about you on that motorcycle. Last year your cousin Tori got herself a nice used Toyota Camry. Have you been looking in the classifieds at all?”

“I was hoping you might help me with that, actually.” Noah said. Grandpa loved talking about cars, and Noah was happy to have a subject to occupy his time. “I thought you and I might take some for a test drive. I’ve got them all circled in last Sunday’s paper. Want to see?”

He motioned towards the living room and they left the kitchen, Dale enthusiastically comparing the merits of Toyota vs. Honda, as Noah nodded and asked questions.

“That boy makes his Grandpa so happy,” Lucy said, shaking her head. “How is he doing at school? Are his grades any better?”

“He’s doing fine,” she said dismissively, though Noah wasn’t exactly an all-star student, except at math. “He likes to write, apparently. Who knew?”

“What about Julie? Last time I saw her she seemed a little…rough.”

“She wears too much eyeliner, you mean. Yeah, she’s a little prickly. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, you know? I love that kid.”

“Are they romantic at all? I never know what to think.”

“Noah hasn’t told me anything.” Miranda said. “Mostly they are fiercely protective of one another. Like siblings, or twins. I don’t know what they’ve got, but it’s special.”

“I’m sure Noah is good for her.”

“I think they’re good for each other, Mom. Always have been.”

 

They went for steak and potatoes at a ritzy chophouse in downtown Tulsa. Lucy and Dale talked a lot, filling everyone in on family news. There was a new baby in the family; photos were passed around and discussions made about the appropriateness of naming a girl Cameron.

“Speaking of girls,” Dale said, waggling his eyebrows. “Anybody in your life that we should be aware of?”

“None whatsoever,” Noah said, dragging the last of his filet mignon through steak sauce before polishing it off.

“Oh I cannot believe that,” Lucy exclaimed. “Look at you; you’re about the best looking kid I’ve ever seen in all my life.”

“And you’re not a bit prejudiced, are you Grandma?”

“Anyway, Noah, you’ve got plenty of time. Don’t worry about finding the right girl. You’ll know when she comes along.”

“I’m not worried, Grandma. I’m seventeen. Give me another ten years, maybe, and then I’ll be a little anxious.”

In truth, he tried his best not to look at girls. He honed his ability to block out the noise that came his way, but things got through. Especially when he touched someone. He would brush past a kid and a series of numbers or words would fall into his head.

School was a vast minefield of emotions and thoughts and feelings that he had no business knowing, and it wore him out. He wondered what to do with all of it. Why should anyone know the way they were going to die, and when? It wasn’t like anyone would believe him, if he decided to tell.

Looking at his grandparents he saw numbers like they were stamped on their foreheads. 5262025 was Grandpa’s. Stroke. Grandma’s was 12282029. Flu. That one really bothered him. Three days after Christmas.

He tried to eat the rest of his potato but his appetite was gone.

“You’re not upset, are you?” Dale asked. “We’re just teasing about the girls.” He put his hand on Noah’s arm.

“No, no, I’m fine,” he said, forcing a smile. “I hope I get hungry again so I can have some cake when we get home. Do we have ice cream, Mama?”

He turned to Miranda, who also looked concerned. No numbers decorated her forehead, thank God. He couldn’t read Mama, and he was happy about that.

“We’ll pick some up on the way home,” she said.

Dale paid the tab and gave the pretty young waitress an exorbitant tip. She thanked him profusely and turned to Noah.

“You have a happy birthday, OK?”

She smiled broadly, showing off a dimple in each rosy cheek, and touched his arm. He nodded and hurried with his family out the door. He winced as the numbers drifted into his mind. 632018 they said, and he glanced back in time to see the words floating across her smooth clear brow. Overdose.

 

~Three~

High school was a necessary evil, Noah thought, and he glided through the hallways practically invisible. The predictability of it was the one thing he found soothing; unexpected events rarely occurred, and he liked that.

In the world anything could happen, but within the confines of the brick and mortar of the high school building, extraordinary events were simply not allowed. Any hint of the extraordinary was summarily quashed. Noah kept his head down, joined no clubs, played no sports, and tried not to be noticed.

He mastered differential calculus in ninth grade but his guidance counselor didn’t know where to send him after that. He studied Einstein and Fermat and Schrodinger in his spare time, breezed through physics, and discovered a latent talent for writing.

He succeeded in being invisible at that, too, until he was noticed by his English Comp teacher, Ms. Armstrong. Mid-forties and enthusiastic, she gave him several A’s on his essays, and read sections of them out loud to the class. This made him painfully uncomfortable, and he tried to write more clumsily to divert her attention.

“Why are you trying so hard to fail?” she asked, fixing him with a penetrating stare, her green eyes flashing.

“I’m not trying to fail,” he answered, shifting uneasily. There was something about her that made him want to run.

“I know what you can do,” she retorted. “It seems you’re not putting forth your best effort. Is everything all right? At home and all?”

She put her hand on his arm.

It was awkward, and he felt claustrophobic. She wasn’t threatening, but there was something very wrong here.

“If you need any extra help, after school or anything,” she said, moving closer. “I’m always available. We can meet at my house.”

It hit him like an errant wave at the beach, slapping him cold in the face and leaving him speechless. His English teacher was making a pass at him. Her hand on his arm was very warm, and he began to sweat.

Images cascaded into his mind like leaves from the autumn trees outside the window: he and Ms. Armstrong locked in an embrace, Ms. Armstrong fired from her job, Ms. Armstrong in court, arguing her innocence and claiming undying love and affection for her boy lover. He leapt away from her like she was on fire.

He almost ran to his locker and turned the knob with trembling fingers. He glanced over his shoulder as though she might be chasing him, then chastised himself for the thought. In spite of his determination to get away as fast as possible, he was painfully aroused.

Ms. Armstrong never gave him such great marks after that. At the end of the school year, he sensed a growing romance between her and the science teacher, and was relieved when they announced their engagement. Mr. Hass was easily two decades younger than Ms. Armstrong but well within the bounds of legality, so scandal was averted.

“What a skank,” Julie said, rolling her black-lined eyes as they discussed it one afternoon not long afterwards.

They were settling into a pepperoni pizza at Noah’s house. Robert, a fellow junior, joined them. His mother had died of cancer, too, and Julie tolerated him for that.

“How stupid are you?” Robert asked. “She throws herself at you and you run away.” He laughed loudly. “You gay, bro?”

“No,” Noah said, unperturbed, as he folded a slice into his mouth. “Just picky, I guess.”

“She’s beautiful. Older women are the best, don’t you know? You should have tapped that, man.”

“You’re a true romantic,” Julie said.

“I’ll send the next one your way,” Noah said to Robert.

“Not likely! You’re the type they all like. Blonde, blue eyes, tall. Sheesh, why can’t you at least get a zit or two, make us all feel better? I bet you think about her.”

Noah grinned sheepishly. Robert laughed and grabbed the last piece of pizza, covering it with a package of red pepper flakes.

“Seriously, you could have any girl at school. Why don’t you go for it? Amanda looks all goofy at you. She’s cute. What about her?”

“Don’t like short girls.” Noah said. Amanda’s numbers were 8132030. Cancer. She was going to die in her early 30s.

“Or brunettes, or green eyes, or tall, or medium, or anything else. You’re gay.”

Noah shrugged. There was no way to explain that knowing the date and form of a girl’s death had a decidedly negative effect on his affections. Their numbers lit up when he brushed them in the hallway or concentrated on their faces for half a second. It always worked. He caught Julie’s eye and she gave him a sympathetic look.

Sorry, man, she thought.

Robert laughed again. “You ain’t gay. I’ve seen you look at girls. You’re just afraid as shit, like the rest of us.”

“You’re not afraid. You have a girlfriend.”

“Only because she asked me out, man. Remember? I’m a pussy like you.”

“Girlfriends take time and money, right?” Noah asked. “I have a job and barely any time now. If I get a girlfriend, I’ll have neither time nor money. Sounds like a lot of stress I don’t need.”

“Ah, but it does have its own perks, if you know what I mean.” Robert smiled. “You don’t know what you’re missing, Noah my boy.”

“I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”

“You sound real excited about it.”

“He’s not gay,” Julie protested, finally. “He’s an android, like Spock. Eternally rational.”

“Spock, huh. Yeah, I can see you as a Vulcan.”

“Live long and prosper, dude.” Noah flashed the hand signal.

“Give Amanda a call, I’m telling you,” Robert said. “Ask her out. Have some fun. School’s almost out; you’ll have plenty of time this summer.”

“Not so. I’m getting more hours for the summer.”

Robert groaned.

 

It was true: when Noah wasn’t in school he was usually working, and he liked it that way. Waiting tables wasn’t going to stop global warming or save the coral reefs, but it challenged him and kept him busy enough. He wanted busy—too much free time and he found his mind taking turns down dark and disturbing paths—and Pearl’s Grill, as one of the more recent eateries near the mall, was the place to get busy.

There was nothing startling or eclectic on the menu, but simply being new gave the place the novel appeal that the bored and hungry masses wanted. The restaurant was hopping every night, and Noah worked almost all of them from five until midnight. Julie worked part time since she took art classes after school, and they had a running contest to see who could get the best tip.

They had a lot of regulars, too, who asked for either Julie or Noah by name. Having special powers, it seemed, wasn’t limited to manipulating clouds and dispelling death; they worked in something as banal as the service industry, as well.

Push a little, just a little, and Noah could tell what people wanted before they knew themselves. Often, he found himself delivering extra lemons or another side of dressing before the customer asked, before they even thought of asking. He offered dessert only to those who wanted it, and no one, no one, ever asked him for the bill.

“Our psychic waiters,” the regulars called them both, and they didn’t mind. Because they were.

He ignored the numbers as he worked, though, and he liked that. He had a theory that if he stayed busy enough, ignored enough of the numbers and whispered thoughts that pulled and plucked at his consciousness all day long that one day he would wake up and they would be gone. Maybe the divinely sadistic gift-giver that bestowed upon him this unique ability would become irritated at his ingratitude and take them back.

Unfortunately, there were times he couldn’t stop his math-driven brain from puzzling out the exact age of death as soon as he saw the numbers. Forty-three years, six months and two days he calculated, looking down at a kid with ice cream dripping from his spoon as he shoveled a skillet cookie into his mouth. Ninety-four years, two months and twenty-five days was the boy’s mother. She was going to outlive her kid, a depressing thought he tried to ignore as he picked up his tip and bussed their table.

One night he had a seven table station and was very close to being in the weeds; a server term that didn’t quite capture the panic involved. More like in the minefield, he thought, as he balanced a tray heavy-laden with burgers and sweet potato fries.

He said good-bye to one table which was quickly bussed and filled with another family. He wiped his hands on a towel and went to greet them.

He was halfway through his speech about the daily specials when it came to a spectacular, screeching halt. There were identical numbers hanging just above their heads. 652016. Tonight. Car Wreck.

He took them in with a glance. Young, mid-twenties, beaming with newlywed fever. Beside the woman was a car seat and a sleeping baby with a pink bow. The same numbers floated above it. The man and woman were looking at him curiously.

“Are you all right?” the woman asked.

Noah tried to compose himself. “Just lost my train of thought there for a moment. What was I saying? Right; appetizers. Our potato skins are legendary. Also, our grilled brie. Seems a little weird, I know, but take my word for it. Think fried cheese but way, way better. You’ll love it.”

He knew they would.

He talked, pouring on the charm, wishing he could make them stay until after midnight. He wanted to make time move faster, make the calendar page flip to tomorrow so the numbers would be wrong.

Maybe he could make the numbers change to decades in the future. Maybe he could erase the spectral horror that hovered just above the baby’s wisp of hair, wipe away the terrible fate that stamped her rosy cheeks and negated all the promise contained within her.

Her mother took her out of her car seat and sat her on her lap. The baby shoved a napkin into her face and chortled, giving a Noah gummy smile. He could not stop glancing at them as he moved about his station, and stared at the immutable numbers that seemed to be leering back at him.

He lost his concentration with his other tables. He dropped silverware into peoples’ laps, got orders wrong, and spilled drinks. The doomed family of three, however, got impeccable service. Julie noticed him from across the room and gave him a curious look.

Her question floated to his mind: what’s up?

“Death tonight,” he thought, and she understood.

She shook her head as she took a drink order. “Just, damn; that’s all I have to say about that.”

The couple really liked him; it was obvious. They asked him about his future plans and kept him at their table, chatting aimlessly. They enjoyed their evening more than others who cleaned their plates and left hastily, anxious to be back at home in front of the TV.

It was their first time out as a family, they told him. The baby was five months old but struggled shortly after birth with a respiratory virus and was hospitalized. It was a scary time, they said, and they were too afraid to go out until now, until they were sure she was healthy, although the doctors told them she was just fine. Parental nervousness, they laughed. So silly.

So silly. Noah laughed with them, but it stuck in his throat and he coughed, then excused himself to attend to one of his neglected customers. He tried to focus. They were almost done. He checked his watch: 10:15. Far too soon.

What could he do? Perhaps he could tell them, beg them to take a bus home instead of their own car. How unbelievable would that sound? His premonition said car wreck, not bus wreck, so it was possible.

He delivered food to one of his other tables, took another order, and went to the server’s station to print out the family’s tab. He would tell them what he had to say, crazy be damned. He had to try.

He went to the dining room but they were gone. A busser cleared their table of empty glasses.

One of the other servers tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a credit card receipt.

“You’re so distracted, Noah. They said they needed to go, so I rang them up. They said to tell you good bye; they really enjoyed themselves.”

He pocketed receipt in his apron and walked quickly out the front door, into the parking lot. The family was nowhere in sight. There was no one he could throw his body in front of, no car bumper upon which he could hang his pleading form.

They were gone, in more ways than one, leaving him with knowledge he didn’t want and the memory of faces he would never forget. He sat down on the curb and put his head in his hands.

“What did you expect?” Julie asked from beside him. She lit a cigarette. “Why would you even try, after all this time? After all we’ve learned? You can’t outwit death. It just comes. It’s a fucking bitch.”

“Just once I’d like to think that this power, or whatever you want to call it, has a purpose,” he said. “That maybe I’m meant to help somebody.”

She inhaled deeply and blew a cloud of smoke into the summer night. “I stopped believing it had a purpose when Mom died. It’s just a fluke in our dented DNA, Noah. I thought you had decided that, too.”

“I try to tell myself that. But then we won the lottery and I thought maybe not. Hope springs eternal and all that crap.”

“Crap is right. Want a smoke? Might make you feel better.”

“I better get back inside. I still have an hour.”

“I’m outta here,” she said. “Best tip tonight was 25 percent, I think. You’ll have to check it for me later. Some fat dude liked my ass I guess. What about you?”

“Thirty,” he sighed, looking at the credit card receipt and gesturing down the highway as an ambulance and a fire truck screamed past. “From those dead people.”

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