Read from the beginning of Part One here
Read from the beginning of Part Two here
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.”
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.
“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?”
“Why are they coming again?”
“It’s my birthday.”
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”