~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.