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?”
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.” 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.
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.