Hugh kept the gun pointed at Miranda for nine hours straight as they plowed their way westward through Oklahoma City, Amarillo and Tucumcari, with very little water and only two bathroom stops. When her head began to nod and she began veering off the highway in Albuquerque, they stopped.
Seedy did not begin to describe the motel, but Miranda was too exhausted to care. She staggered in and fell onto one of the small, sagging beds and Hugh came through the door with Noah, who was just beginning to come out of his drugged stupor.
He dragged him to the bathroom and Miranda could hear him ordering Noah to pee. Coming back into the room, he plopped him unceremoniously onto the other bed and immediately administered a second dose of the opiate. They watched as his eyes rolled backwards in his skull. Miranda wept at the sight of Noah so completely out of it.
“What if he throws up or something?” she pleaded with Hugh. “At least roll him on his side.”
“You worry too much,” he said, pulling out a pair of handcuffs and immediately clamping them onto her, threading his massive wrist through the other opening. “Now go to sleep. You have exactly six hours before we hit the road again.”
And in spite of herself, her mind turbulent with fear, she slept.
In the morning they headed out, Miranda driving once more. She felt dry and hollow inside, dehydrated and exhausted. Hugh gave her only a granola bar and a bottle of water before they continued their trek.
The air in New Mexico was beautifully clear and cleansing, the light full of gold, but she hardly noticed as she focused on the horizon. Crossing into Arizona by noon, she felt she had been travelling for months, that there had never been anything but the incessant sound of the motor and the ever-lengthening highway.
Hugh never dozed, never seemed to blink or let down his guard for a moment, though she didn’t know what to do if he had. Noah drowsed in the back seat, full of drugs and hardly moving. She wondered what kind of permanent brain damage such a quantity of narcotics might have on him, or what might happen if Hugh got the dosage wrong. She prayed like she never had before, to any deity that came to mind, but heard no direction from the heavens.
Julie and John stopped to rest in Albuquerque, renting a room within a quarter-mile of the very motel where Noah and Miranda slumbered. Though Julie stretched her mind until it throbbed, she could pick up no trace of him.
“I don’t know if he’s dead, or what!” she cried. “I’ve never felt him so still.”
“He wouldn’t kill him,” John said. “He’s taking them to Vegas to use Noah.” He didn’t speak what he was afraid Hugh wanted from Miranda, but Julie felt his fear and was at a loss for words, as well.
“He wants revenge. I think that is obvious,” Julie said. “We don’t have a lot of time, Dad. If he gets what he wants from Noah, what then? He’s not going to just let them go, right?”
“No, honey. He’s not,” John said grimly. “I’m not sure what we’ll do, but we’ll do something. For now, we’ve just got to get there.”
She nodded, and they tried to sleep.
Julie tossed fitfully, caught between reality and imagination, hovering in the space in her mind where her subconscious went to make sense of the day’s events. Given her spectacular subconscious, and the current agitation of her soul, however, her psychic antennae trembled and caught the flotsam and jetsam of unseen realms. From there it was transferred it into her dreams as a colossal maelstrom of images and thoughts.
She stood on the edge of a vast desert, nothing but sand dunes for miles on every side. She screamed Noah’s name, but her voice was swallowed up by the sand and she grew hoarse and desperate. Suddenly, it began to rain violently, the drops melting into the sand like hot butter on warm toast. The sky grew dark and cold, and she shuddered, unable to see five feet in front of her.
Suddenly she realized there was a strange man beside her. He was gazing straight ahead as though seeing what she could not, and she thought he might be crying, though it was hard to say in the downpour. He was almost too perfectly handsome with a strong jaw and blue eyes, and she marveled to realize he looked just like Noah himself, but some thirty years older. He turned to her, and took her hand. She felt oddly comforted.
Call Miranda, he said, though his mouth did not move. And with that, she awoke, sitting straight up in bed with a cry.
Call Miranda. This whole time, she was trying to find Noah. Trembling with hope, she stretched out her mind and called Miranda’s name with as much force as she could muster. No response. She kept trying, calling the name until suddenly her mind filled with another voice.
Julie? Is that you, Julie?
It was exhausted, fearful and confused, but it was Miranda. Miranda’s voice. Miranda’s mind, connected with hers as crisply as the best telephone connection.
She shrieked with excitement, shook her father violently and told him she had found them. They were just outside Flagstaff, they were alive, and they were headed to The Piazza, one of the most expensive hotels in Vegas.
John stared, and then leapt out of the bed, throwing things into his suitcase. Julie did the same.
“You’re an oracle, Julie. A beautiful, freaking oracle.” He hugged her and they headed for the car.
“Dad? Let’s just save the celebrating for when we actually find them.”
Vegas was a cacophony, a brilliant barrage of noise and lights that would numb Noah’s senses even without the drugs Hugh pumped into him.
Hugh allowed the opiates to wear off just enough for Noah to walk into the hotel, where he gave a vacant smile to the desk clerk and nodded happily when handed a fresh, warm cookie and a glass of champagne.
Their IDs identified them as his wife Mary and his son, Joel. Joel just turned 21, and wasn’t that grand? He was here to show him the time of his life and maybe win a few dollars, you never knew, did you? No sir, you never did.
The clerk nodded and handed them the keys, assuring them they had one of the finest rooms, with a balcony right over the renowned 1,000-nozzled fountain that was choreographed to a variety of musical numbers. Hugh smiled and chuckled, shook hands with everyone, and ushered his beautiful family into the elevator.
“Well done, my dear,” he said. “Thought you might make a scene in the lobby, but lucky for you, you didn’t. My poor, schizophrenic wife. It would have been unfortunate, but here in Vegas they’ve seen everything. It would be very ugly for you later, however. I brought plenty of sedative with me.”
He slid the key card into the door and swung it open. The room was magnificent, nicer than any Miranda had seen, and the view was spectacular, opening on a sea of lights that went on endlessly in all directions. Exhausted, she sank onto the sofa and put her head in her hands. Noah sat robotically next to her, still smiling vacantly.
Miranda had concocted a plan, actually, to throw an enormous fit in the lobby of the hotel. She would scream, beg, cling to anyone passing by to listen to her until the authorities came. She would point at Hugh and name him as the villain, and, with a colossal heap of luck, the charade would be over and they would send Hugh to prison for the rest of his life.
With the appearance of Julie’s voice in her head, however, she had reconsidered.
When it first entered her mind, she thought the voice was her fevered imagination playing tricks on her, much like the mirages on the road became more pronounced as they headed deeper into the desert. As it persisted, however, she realized it was Julie, seeking her.
It took every bit of her remaining strength to keep the car on the road, to stifle her excitement and surge of hope, as she communicated with her across the miles, marveling at the reality of her dreams.
Where are you? Julie asked.
Desert, she responded. Flagstaff.
Where is he taking you?
The Piazza. Fancy casino and hotel. He’s drugged Noah and I don’t know if he’ll ever be OK again…
Don’t panic, Miranda, Julie said, her authoritative tone overriding Miranda’s desire to break down completely. You have to stay strong. We’re going to get you. Don’t worry.
So she reconsidered her plan to make a scene in the lobby and now she shuddered to think of it after his threat in the elevator. If he injected her as well, all hope of communicating with Julie would be cut off.
Julie and John were coming for them. That was all she needed to know. She sent a message through the air, hoping for encouragement.
I’m here, Miranda.
Would you tell John I love him? No matter what happens, I love your dad. I don’t want to die without him knowing…
No, Julie said calmly. I’m not telling him that. When you see him, you can tell him yourself.
Hugh dressed Noah in a beautiful Armani suit, and ran a lint brush over and over across his shoulders and down his back. Noah giggled and stared at him as Miranda felt despair stretching up and down the length of her chest.
This was not her son, this vapid stranger who wore his skin. Noah was nowhere in sight. She had no idea if he would ever return, not after what Hugh had pumped into him.
“Now, son,” Hugh said in a lecturing tone. “You stay close to me, you hear? Wouldn’t want you wandering off and getting lost, right?”
“When we get to the roulette table, you tell me what color and number looks good to you. It’s very easy, and we’ll be done before you know it.”
Noah nodded again, smiling and smiling.
“And Mary, my love,” he said, turning to Miranda. “Remember, these walls are not your average hotel room walls. No sound will be heard in the next room. You can scream all you want, but the most anyone will think is you’re having the time of your life riding whatever dick you picked up at the bar, got that?”
He zip-tied her hands behind her in a chair and the two of them left, Hugh steering Noah with one hand firmly on his shoulder, pressing up against him like a doting father. Miranda was left in the room, TV blaring on The Heart of Vegas, a hotel-operated channel that spotlighted all the reasons their fun was superior to all the other fun in the city.
Hours ticked by. Miranda stayed in almost constant contact with Julie, telling her Noah was less drugged than before; could she try again to reach him? Julie said she tried but all that came back was a blur of images and noise, a spinning wheel and cheering voices.
Hurry, Julie, Miranda begged. Hurry.
We’re here. Her voice was breathless in Miranda’s mind, and after thirty more minutes she heard voices at the door. Beloved voices; John and Julie’s voices. They were twisting the handle. She sobbed with relief.
Just have to unlock the door.
There was a momentary pause, and utter stillness as Julie concentrated on the handle. Miranda held her breath. Suddenly there was a click. The handle twisted, and Julie and John burst in.
John flew across the room and fell on his knees beside Miranda, pulling his pocketknife from his jeans and sawing at the zip ties. They fell to pieces and she fell into his arms, sobbing and hysterical.
“Miranda, are you all right? Are you hurt?”
She shook her head no, although it was a lie; she hurt everywhere and her heart would never be the same. She would have the rest of her life for it to heal, the rest of her life with this man, if she could believe for one moment that they would escape.
“How do we get Noah away from him?” she sobbed. “He’ll never let us go, never leave us alone if we get away from him; he’ll just come back, John. He’ll always come back.”
“We’re going to kill him,” John said calmly.
“Is that so?” Hugh said, stepping through the door. “That’s something I really would like to see.”
Zip-tied to their chairs, the four captives watched as Hugh paced, trying to figure out the best and most efficient way to dispose of them. John’s left cheek was a rainbow of red and blue after a short but futile struggle. He tried to give encouraging looks to Miranda but they came out more pained than uplifting.
Hugh paced, muttering and thinking. Suddenly he snapped his fingers and began to laugh.
“So beautifully simple,” he said with a leer. “Right in front of my eyes the whole damn time, too. Right there!” He pointed at Noah, who lolled slightly in his chair, eyes unfocused and unblinking from the power of the injection Hugh had just administered.
“Leave him alone,” Miranda begged. “You got what you came for. Didn’t he win enough? Can’t you just let him go? I don’t care what you do to me.”
“You’ve completely missed the point, haven’t you?” Hugh asked, shaking his head. “You never were very bright, that’s for certain. Just a simple whore, that’s all you are.”
“Bastard!” John spat, turning red. “You’ll never get away with this, not as long as I’m here.”
“There’s no need to get all noble.” Hugh laughed, patting John on the head. “You feel very brave, don’t you? You’d do anything for her, wouldn’t you? You’d like to die a brave death for her, right? Well you’re not going to get the chance, John. You’re going to die wetting yourself and begging for your life. It’s going to be so wonderfully humiliating. We’ll save Miranda for last so she can see it.”
Miranda was trembling violently from fear, hunger, dehydration, and fatigue. Julie tried to calm her.
Miranda, she said sternly. Listen to me. We have to work together. Let’s try to wake Noah up, together. We need his help.
“Never fear, though,” Hugh said. “I don’t intend to kill any of you. I’m going to be innocent, you see? The poor, unbalanced youth who shot his mother and friends to death in Vegas. No one will ever forget it.”
Julie lost her focus for a moment and stared at Hugh, stunned.
“You can’t do that,” she breathed, aghast.
“Oh, I can’t, little lady?” He turned to her with a sneer. “I just talked him into winning me a quarter of a million dollars.” He gestured to a huge plastic cup of $1,000 chips spilling onto the counter. “You don’t think I can get him to pull a trigger a few times? You’ll go second, just so you can see I’m right. And then poor Noah…”
He turned to the limp form in the chair and took his face in his hand, wiping the saliva off his chin. “Poor Noah, racked with guilt, turns the gun on himself. Bang!” he shouted, causing everyone but Noah to jump. “All done.”
The captives stared, unable to speak, absorbing the full weight of his plan.
Noah! Julie shouted. Wake up. Noah. Wake up!
Miranda joined in the chant, closing her eyes to concentrate harder. Noah jerked.
It was so faint, so uncertain, it sounded as though it came from a great distance away instead of directly beside her.
Noah, can you hear me? Please Noah. We need your help.
Julie. His eyes rolled back into his head. I’m so tired…
Julie started to sob. Hugh picked up the pistol and opened the cylinder, filling each chamber as they watched in horror. He took a clean white cloth from his duffle bag and carefully polished the entire gun with it, then laid it on the table.
“Miranda, don’t give up,” John said to her, softly. “Don’t give up. We’re going to be all right.”
She nodded, although she felt no conviction behind his words.
“Miranda,” he whispered again, urgently. “I want you to know, whatever happens, that I love you. I have for some time now. I love you, with all my heart.”
Hugh went to lift Noah from his chair but John stuck one foot out as he passed by, sending the big man sprawling onto the floor with a crash that shook the room. Rising up, he roared in outrage and punched John in the head with a meaty fist, sending him sprawling across the floor and out of his chair, zip ties failing from the force of the impact.
John scrambled up and drove head first into Hugh, attempting to bring him to the floor again but he was outweighed by at least forty pounds. Miranda screamed as Hugh wrapped both hands around John’s neck and began to lift him from the floor.
“This is not the way it will happen!” he shouted, as John turned purple. He hurled him to the floor and shook himself, taking several deep breaths. “You want to be the hero, do you?” He seized John again, righted the chair and slammed him back into it. He took the handcuffs and clamped them onto John’s wrists behind him, zip tying the cuffs to the chair in two places.
“There,” he said, somewhat breathlessly. “Can’t have a pesky fly spoiling things at the last minute now, can we?”
He straightened up. “Now, where was I?” He strode towards Noah again but a strange confusion seemed to fall upon him and he halted, turning a slow circle in front of them. “What the fuck?” he said. Miranda stared at Julie and tuned in to her mind to hear her chanting
Her eyes were turned on Hugh like dark lasers, wide and focused, and he stared at his feet as though not sure who they belonged to. As though fighting against a strong current, he stepped towards Noah and seemed to break the spell. Miranda heard Julie cry aloud, a soft despairing sound.
Noah, she heard her say. Noah, I need your help. Miranda, help me…
Miranda focused on Hugh also, chanting balcony, balcony, balcony but he hesitated only the slightest fraction of a second before continuing.
It’s no use, Julie, she thought. I don’t have your kind of power.
Suddenly, Noah was there. His head was still down, his eyes shut, but he was there, in their minds, joining with Julie. A flurry of images flashed through Miranda’s head; he and Julie watching a bully on the playground, he and Julie dispelling a dark fog above Jenny, he and Julie lying on their backs at the park, passing time manipulating clouds in the sky…and as she saw these, she also saw Hugh turn slowly again in a circle, as though in a dream state, before heading past her son like a doll on strings and straight towards the sliding glass door that opened out onto the spectacular view.
“What the fuck is happening here?” he roared, feet moving in spite of his will. “What th–?“ and then his mouth clapped shut and his eyes grew wide with disbelief and a steadily growing terror.
“Shut up,” said Julie.
Balcony, thought Noah.
Hugh slid the glass aside and stepped out, a rush of hot, dry desert wind flowing into the room after him.
Both Noah and Julie had their heads down now, eyes tightly shut, sweat beading on their foreheads, as Miranda and John watched Hugh step one leg, and then the other, onto the opposite side of the railing, leaning far over into space, gripping the iron bars with both hands. Suddenly, Miranda’s zip tie popped off and she brought her hands up, rubbing her wrists and staring into Hugh’s horrified face as he hung fourteen floors above the Piazza’s musical fountain.
Slowly, she rose and walked towards him, steel in her eyes. Molested, threatened, terrorized, her fear and grief reached their breaking point and as they dissolved, fury rose to take their place. Here was the man of her nightmares, abusing her, using her, using Noah, plotting their deaths and gloating over all of it. Here was the man—man?—here was the monster who was going to kill them and let the blame fall on her own beloved boy.
She reached out and took one of the fingers clinging to the cold iron railing and plucked it upwards. It released easily. She popped the next one off, and the next one. With a heavy jolt, he hung by one hand, feet still planted on the balcony’s edge. He began shaking his head frantically, face ashen, muffled noises coming from his mouth as he vainly pled for his life. She pulled on the last hand, all four fingers coming up at once, and Hugh’s arms pin-wheeled in the air.
His mouth sprang open and with a desperate shriek he fell backwards, kicking and flailing as he plummeted fourteen stories, crashing with a violent splash into the estimable fountain, skewered with a sickening crunch by at least ten of the thousand jets. My Heart Will Go On played through the loudspeakers as the water arced and danced around him, a red stain spreading slowly from the lifeless, demolished body.
Miranda turned from the balcony, face white and terrible, and walked back to the others. She sat down and put her hands behind her back. The zip tie climbed, inch-worm like, up the leg of her chair and secured itself around her wrists. Together, they waited for the authorities to arrive.
The story in the paper was bizarre. Not that it was strange for a man to jump from the upper floors of the Piazza into the fountain; suicides were a fact of life in Las Vegas. That the jumper kidnapped four people with the intention of using their perceived psychic talents to help him win money and planned to kill them when he was done; that was weird.
That he decided to throw himself off the balcony while they were all zip-tied to chairs instead, well–that was bizarre. Happily, just a month later, a local magician had his tigers stolen by a woman who wanted to have sex with them and give birth to a human/tiger hybrid, and the story was all but forgotten.
Julie, John, Miranda, and Noah stayed for two more days, residing in the penthouse of the Piazza, where they lay on round, spinning beds and ordered room service for every meal, tipping generously using Hugh’s cup of chips. When they decided to head home, the rest were cashed out for $224,350, to be placed in Noah and Julie’s savings accounts.
Noah gradually revealed himself to be relatively undamaged by the drugs except for a ravenous hunger that took three weeks to wear off. He did most of the driving home, feeling wide awake after his long slumber, as Julie rode shotgun and Miranda lay in the back seat, asleep with her head in John’s lap. She woke up long enough to kiss his lips and drink enormous quantities of water. It was a slow trip, with many bathroom stops.
Another moving day. This time there was no truck, only the bustling activity of the many volunteers carting Miranda and Noah’s things across the street to the newly wedded Griffith-Miller household. Most of her furniture had been dispersed to various members of the extended family, but there seemed a fairly unending parade of book and wardrobe boxes that filed across the street in the tireless arms.
Somewhere around noon they took a break to eat, spreading blankets on the front lawn to have a picnic of pizza and champagne and enjoy what was a truly spectacular late spring day. It was May, and the sun shone down brightly but benignly on the group of friends and family.
“I would like to make a toast.” John said, lifting his glass in the air as the buzz of voices died down and all eyes turned to him. He knelt on the patchwork quilt and held Miranda’s hand. “To my beautiful bride. May she always find me more attractive than I am.”
Laughter broke out, and some applause.
“And to all of you, for coming and making this day part of the ongoing celebration of our love.”
“And to myself, for managing to hook the best fish in the sea.”
More laughter, as Hannah and Nancy cheered and pumped their fists in the air. Miranda pulled him down beside her, kissing him to shut him up.
“My husband has had a wee bit more champagne than he realizes,” she said, shrieking as he buried his face in her neck.
Wow. Julie smiled at Noah. Just wow.
Yeah. How long are they going to be like this?
No idea. Thank God for graduation next month so we can split.
Yeah, thank God. They were both still smiling but neither was fooling the other. Suddenly Julie’s eyes filled with tears.
“How am I going to get along without you, Noah?” she asked, wiping her eyes hastily.
“What are you talking about? I’ll always be here.”
“I know, but not here-here. Just…here.” She tapped on her head. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
“Now who’s being sentimental? Julie, I didn’t think you had it in you.” He gave her a friendly shove. She punched his arm.
“I’m not kidding,” she sniffed. “We’ve talked around it, but not about it. How will I stand it? The Art Institute is so far away, halfway across the country.”
“You’re going to do great,” he asserted. “You’re going to love it. You won’t think about any of us for longer than two seconds once you get there. Your life is going to be so full of awesome stuff. You’re never going to want to come back to this squatty little town.”
“Yeah, right.” She tried to frown at him but couldn’t. “I mean, I am excited.”
“There you go; of course you are. Don’t worry, Julie. It’s a whole new beginning.”
“What if I like this new beginning better?”
“Then you can come back. You can always come back. And you can be a proper starving artist and sell your canvases on street corners downtown and be crazy and homeless and unwashed.”
Now she was giggling at the image he had of her in his head, and they both laughed out loud. They stretched out next to one another on the blanket, gazing up at the blue sky.
“Hey, let’s play the cloud game.” She pointed upwards at the largest billowy mass of vapor.
“OK. What do you want to make?”
“How about an elephant?” Together they concentrated on the cloud, watching it boil and shift as they did, crafting a rope of a nose and the subsequent lumpish body.
“Awesome,” Julie said when they were done. Sudden shadows fell over them as Miranda and John appeared, looking at them and then up at the sky, curious.
“Did you guys?” Miranda pointed. They nodded, smiling.
“I’ll be damned,” John said. “Thing really looks like a turkey, doesn’t it?”
“Turkey!” Julie was indignant. “Dad, the only turkey here is you.”
“Is that so, young lady?” he bent to tickle her and she flailed at him, screaming. Miranda lay down beside Noah and kissed his cheek as the rest of the picnickers rose and began cleaning up.
“Gonna miss you so much, son,” she said with a sigh.
“Only going to be an hour away, Mama.”
“Still. Not having my baby right here with me…”
“Maybe we should have another one,” John said, suddenly. Miranda, Noah, and Julie stared at him.
“No,” Julie said, looking incredulous.
“You wouldn’t, really? Would you?” Noah asked.
“Hey, you’re not the boss of us,” Miranda said, sticking her tongue out at the teens. “We’re not that old and dried up, you know.”
“Let’s go practice right now,” John said. Julie and Noah groaned and clapped their hands over their ears.
“Newlyweds!” Julie exclaimed.
“Yeah, you guys really ought to get a room,” Noah said.
“That’s what I just said,” John explained, with exaggerated patience.
“Will you guys do a cloud for me and John?”
Julie and Noah looked at one another for a half second, and back into the sky. Slowly the elephant began to change shape and the four watched as it stretched and gathered itself into a heart, wings sprouting from each side.
“Aw, that’s nice,” John said. “A squirrel.”
They laughed and groaned and Miranda stood, pulling Noah to his feet as John did the same to Julie and they gathered them into a solid group hug.
“You guys, you’re the best,” Julie said in a muffled voice near the center. She sniffled loudly.
“You’re not crying, oh hard-boiled egg, are you?” John asked, pressing her to himself as she wiped her nose on her sleeve and tried to stop.
“I can’t help it! You’re my hero, Dad.”
He reddened with pleasure. “It seems to me that I am the least superhero-ish of this bunch.”
“Certainly not,” Miranda protested. “You’re my hero too.”
“Then let’s have another toast,” he said, lifting his nearly-empty glass. “To us. The motliest group of somewhat superheroic stalwart bodies to ever roam the planet. To happily ever after.”
“Happily ever after.” They repeated, in unison.
I guess you’re my sister now, Noah thought.
And you’re my brother, she thought back. Nevermind. I still intend to kiss you good, one of these days.
Above them, the cloud heart melted into the clear blue sky and the numbers in Noah’s head were all happy ones; birthdays and weddings and celebrations and successes. He knew there were no givens in life, not a single one, but together they would dance on the precipice of hope and love and joy and life, while they had it. Together they would count the blessings falling down on them, all around them like a gentle rain.