Ensconced in a booth at their favorite burger joint, John, Miranda, Noah and Julie were both reminiscing and talking about plans for the future. Julie was going to art school in California, determined to be the next Georgia O’Keefe. To Noah, she already was. Her paintings evoked strong emotions, and she had a lengthy client list to prove it.
“You need to get a lot worse if you want to be a real starving artist.” Noah teased her. “Or give it all away. You’re going to be financially independent before I can get my own apartment.”
“There’s tons I need to learn,” she said. “There are all kinds of media I haven’t tried and tools I have yet to use. Anyway, my paintings are not that great.”
“Not that great?” John protested. “Are you kidding me? That portrait you did of your sister took my breath away.”
“And the tree you painted for me in my hallway,” Miranda said, nodding. “I can’t tell you how many compliments I get on it. I think it’s sent a client or two your way.”
Julie muttered, but Noah could tell she was pleased.
“What about you, Noah?” John asked. “Are you going to be the next Rockefeller? Or John von Neumann?”
“I’m thinking of waiting tables the rest of my life,” Noah replied.
“You will not,” Miranda said, strenuously. “I didn’t go through fourteen hours of labor in the middle of a hurricane for you to be a waiter your whole life.”
Noah laughed. “I’ll go to college and try to be successful. I thought I’d write my memoirs. They’d be an instant bestseller.”
“How can you be through with your memoirs?” Julie asked. “You can’t possibly write them until you’re, like, 90.”
“If you want to write, why not look into a journalism degree?” John interjected. “I could probably get you an internship at the Tulsa World next summer.”
Noah nodded. He liked the sound of that.
They went to a movie and headed back to the Miller’s for a game of poker. John and Julie had taught Miranda and Noah to play, and they enjoyed the cutthroat gambling, even if it was only Monopoly money they played with.
“Are you ready to lose, suckers?” Noah asked as they sat down at the kitchen table.
Julie punched him in the arm. “We’ll see who gets suckered, sucker.”
“I’m feeling pret-ty lucky tonight,” Miranda said. “Don’t count your chickens, my son.”
“Listen to your mother, Noah,” John said. “She’s as smart as she is beautiful.”
What are we going to do with them? Noah said to Julie in the space above their heads.
It’s pretty bad, isn’t it?
He loves her. And she feels the same about him, I’m sure of it.
How can we get them together? Break into a song like in a Disney movie?
The evening wore on, and Miranda won nearly every hand. She raked in the toy money, full of glee.
“Maybe I ought to head to Vegas, I’m so good,” she crowed.
“Do you have a sixth sense, or what?” Noah asked, beginning to wish he hadn’t put his powers on a mental shelf at the beginning of the game.
“Are you surprised?” she asked with a wink. “You got it from somewhere. I just have one thing to say; you have pretty good cards, but you have a tell—a little sign you send out whenever you have great cards.”
“I what?” he said, incredulously. “I do not!”
“Oh, but you do.” She said, one eyebrow raised.
“What is it?”
“I’m not going to tell you your tell. You and Julie both have one, actually, and that’s the only way I win.”
“What about me?” John said. “What’s my problem?”
“Your cards just suck.”
Noah yawned and stretched. “If you’re through kicking my tail, Mama, do you mind if I head home? Pearl wants me to show up early to do some inventory with her.”
“Sure, honey, that’s no problem,” she pushed back her chair. “This was so, so much fun. I’m glad we got to do it.”
“Me, too,” Julie said. “Remember when we used to stay up together watching old monster movies?”
“How could I forget?” Laughed John. “I had to get Julie to sing me to sleep after half of them.”
“I’m going to go to bed, too,” Julie said. “I’m painting a poodle’s portrait tomorrow. Wish me luck; that thing is a monster. Nearly ate my hand last time I was there.”
“It’s been nice knowing you,” Noah said, soberly, giving her a hug before shutting the door behind him.
John invited Miranda to stay for a while, and they sat on the couch, talking deep into the night in the blue glow of the television. Miranda yawned hugely and leaned against John’s shoulder.
“Guess I better go, too.”
“You don’t have to,” he said, readjusting his position to make her more comfortable.
“That’s nice,” she said. She snuggled against him and he put his arm around her. He flipped the channels until he found reruns of CSI and she murmured sleepily. She fell asleep within moments, and her last sensation was the feel of his hand stroking her hair.
How I love this man, she thought. If only I could tell him.
For the past two weeks, from his vantage point a few houses down, Hugh mapped out Miranda and Noah’s schedules. Miranda left for work each day at approximately 7:30. Noah left around 10. Seeing them again after so many years caused his whole body to churn with adrenaline. His hands twitched with urgency, wanting to wrap themselves around Miranda’s neck and watch her squirm.
Not yet, though. Not yet. He had to be careful. They had quite a bit of interaction with their neighbors across the street. The man was obviously Miranda’s lover. Small guy, gentle manners, a real pussy. Hugh snorted. He would be easy enough. Still, he didn’t want any complications. This was going to be nice and clean.
Miranda got home every weekday at 5:15. Noah was later; usually not until well after dark, and he often left again with the girl across the street. It might be tricky to get them both together, but he wasn’t worried. When the time was right, the universe would open up and it would all go smoothly.
Perhaps even today. He had a good feeling about today. He saw Miranda leave the neighbor’s house at 8 a.m., hair disheveled and eyes bleary. She was still a slut, obviously. She walked across the street and entered her house. Noah left soon after. Hugh decided to return to his motel room and take some time to think.
Back in his room, he checked his supplies and mentally ran through his plan. Excitement made his heart beat fast, and he knew with even greater certainty that today was the day. He practiced his affirmations and did some guided visualizations to calm down. He pictured Miranda and Noah at the end of his gun as they travelled unhindered across the country to reap the rewards he was so long due.
He carefully placed the zip ties, syringes, tranquilizers, fake ID’s, money and gun carefully back into the duffle and headed out once more. Back at the fourplex, he circled once to check that Miranda’s car was still there, and pulled slowly into the back parking lot, taking Noah’s spot. He cut the engine, took several deep breaths, slipped the pistol into his pocket, and got out.
He peered through the back window and saw no one in the kitchen. Jimmying the door open wasn’t a problem at all, the cheap lock practically falling open at his touch, and he slipped silently into the house.
He could hear a shower from somewhere upstairs. He smiled, straightened, and strode through the rooms, giving them cursory checks to make sure no one else was home. He climbed the stairs to the landing. Noah’s room was to the left; he glanced in and saw that it was empty. To the right was Miranda’s. The shower was louder. He slid into her room, took out the pistol, sat in her rocking chair and waited.
Something was wrong. Noah knew it. As he counted cans of peaches and tubs of mayonnaise, the growing sense of alarm was scrambling his ability to focus, and he realized that he was sweating. He sat heavily in a chair in the kitchen and wiped his forehead. Pearl looked at him with some concern.
“What’s the matter, kid? You sick?”
“I don’t know, Pearl. I just…I feel really bad.”
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” he repeated. “Heart’s pounding. Sweaty.”
“I think you better get yourself home, pronto. Don’t worry about this; I’ll call Roy in to help me. Are you all right to drive?”
“I think so. Thanks, Pearl.”
He walked to his car, trying to sort out his feelings. He turned his thoughts to home but there seemed to be a wall in the way; he got nothing but static on his internal radar; something was blocking him. This strengthened his anxiety and he turned the key in the ignition with a shaking hand.
Julie was there, suddenly. What’s up, Noah? You’re sending out scary vibes. Are you all right?
I don’t know, he answered. Something is wrong. I don’t know what. I’ve got to get home.
I hope it’s OK. Maybe you’re just getting sick. Let me know as soon as possible?
Miranda wrapped a towel around her head, humming aimlessly. She wrapped a second towel around her body and threw the bathroom door open to let the steam out. She went to the dresser, pulled clothes out and turned to place them on the bed.
Hugh rose from the rocker, pistol pointed at her midsection.
“Hello, Miranda,” he said with a cruel smile. “You’re looking well.”
She took a breath to scream but he crossed the room in two strides and pressed the gun into her side, clapping his other hand over her mouth.
“One sound, Miranda. One sound and your son will find you in a puddle all over the floor, got it?” She nodded, eyes wide with terror. He released her and relaxed.
“That’s better. Now we can talk rationally. It’s really good to see you.”
She whimpered, pulling the towel tighter around herself.
“Don’t do that. I need you to get dressed. We’re going on a little trip, you and me and your bastard son, and you need something on besides that towel, understand?” He yanked the towel hard, snapping it from her body with a laugh that was more like a growl, then stepped back to look at her as she tried to cover herself with her hands.
“Beautiful. Just as I remember. I wonder if everything else is, too?” He tapped her arm, which she had crossed over her breasts, with the cold barrel of the gun. “Down, please.” She dropped it, trembling. He reached forward to stroke the side of her breast, lingering over her nipple as she squeezed her eyes shut, tears slipping from the edges.
He pushed her onto the bed, and laughed.
Noah careened down the highway, doing 70, then 80, then 90. His heart did flip-flops and the voice in his head chanted faster faster faster as he swerved around other cars. He pulled onto his exit ramp and shot through the stop sign, turning right. Thirty seconds later, lights lit up his rear view mirror. Cursing and pounding the steering wheel, he slowed and pulled over.
“Morning,” the cop said, brightly, taking his ID and registration. “What’s got you in such a hurry today, son?”
“I don’t know,” Noah said, trying to stifle the urge to lay on the gas and leave him standing there. “Just not paying attention, I guess.”
“You didn’t even slow down for that stop sign back there.”
“I’m guess I didn’t see it.”
“I’ll be right back. Don’t go anywhere,” he said, and returned to the cop car.
Noah ran his hands through his hair, making it stand straight on end, and groaned. Why now? Why? He still felt nothing when he stretched his thoughts towards home, and that left him standing on the edge of panic. He gripped the steering wheel and tapped his foot nervously on the floor mat. The officer returned and handed him the cards and a sheet of paper.
“I’ll let you go with a warning today, son. Try to pay more attention from now on, all right?”
“All right, sir. Thank you, sir,” he said, nodding fervently.
He rolled up his window, started the car and pulled away slowly. Forcing himself to keep the speedometer pegged on the speed limit, he continued through the neighborhood to home.
He parked at the curb in front of the house, took the front stairs two at a time and tried to put his key in the lock. His hands were trembling so violently he dropped the keychain on the porch. Swearing, he scooped it up and managed to get the door open.
He ran into the living room and started shouting for his mother.
Nothing. He ran through the kitchen and looked out the back door. Her car was sitting in her spot.
He bounded up the stairs, turned into her bedroom and came to an abrupt stop in the doorway. There was an enormous man there, pistol pressed to Mama’s temple. Tears were pouring down her race and her naked body shook with sobs.
“Noah, run,” she said softly.
“Do nothing of the sort, Noah. Move one muscle or make one sound and your darling mother’s brains will decorate the wall, you understand?” Hugh—Noah knew it was—tightened his bulging forearm around Mama’s neck.
He nodded, scarcely able to breathe. Fury mixed with fear and he shook with the force of them both.
“Excellent,” Hugh said, smiling the ugliest smile Noah had ever seen. “Come on. Help your poor mother get dressed. She’s shaking with cold.”
Noah helped. Mama nearly collapsed and he helped her to her feet, whispering words of encouragement. They would get out of this, he said. They would be all right. Hugh laughed.
“He’s right, Miranda. Listen to your son. You’ll be just fine, so long as you do exactly as I say. We’re going on vacation so your boy here can get back what you stole from me so many years ago. So throw a few clothes in a bag, and we’ll be on our way.”
Miranda’s bag was packed, and Noah’s after that. Hugh made Noah hang the towels up and make the bed before they went downstairs, where he placed a piece of paper on the table and handed a pen to Miranda.
“A note, please. A happy and excited note saying you and your son decided to rent a car and take a long overdue vacation to New Orleans. You will be back in one week.”
“Where…where are we really going?” Miranda said, faintly.
“Vegas.” He grinned.
Vegas and Hugh were the last words Julie heard before a deafening, reverberating, terrifying silence descended over the easy communication that she and Noah always shared. After making a hasty excuse and leaving Mrs. Frith’s poodle portrait half-done, she drove home, consumed with anxiety.
Pulling into her driveway, she saw Noah’s car parked in front of the fourplex. She bolted across the street to pound on the door and call his name. She tried the rear entrance but it, too, was locked tightly. Miranda’s car was in her spot, so they had to be home. She flew across the street to her house.
“She called for her father, who emerged from his office, alarmed at the urgency in her voice.
“It’s Noah, Dad. Something’s wrong. His car is out front but nobody answers when I knock. Where’s the key?”
“In the drawer I think. Do you think we should just barge in?”
“Yes, Dad. If ever there was a time to barge, it’s now.”
She grabbed the key and raced across the street. John followed, coming up behind her just as she got the door unlocked and threw it open.
She ran through the house, calling for Noah.
John called for Miranda, less urgently but no less concerned. Julie was not one to fly into irrational flights of fancy, and he believed that she had reason to be alarmed. He wasn’t in the habit of questioning her uncanny intuition.
“He’s not here,” she called from upstairs. “Nobody’s here!” She was near tears.
“Let’s think,” John said. He tried to remain calm, but her urgency was rattling him. “Maybe they took a walk. Let me give her a call.”
“No, Dad, they didn’t,” Julie said. “The last thing Noah said to me was Vegas, just Vegas, and the name Hugh.”
John paused, his finger poised over the call button on his phone, and stared at her, his face turning white.
“When did he say this to you? What else did he say?”
“It was kind of jumbled. He was really scared, though, I know he was. And angry. It was scary how angry he was. He said Hugh, and Vegas, and then—nothing. Just nothing.”
John cancelled Miranda’s number and hit 911.
Miranda kept waiting to wake up from the nightmare. She kept waiting for the moment of clarity, the beautiful eye-opening moment when all returned to normal and the familiar homey items of her bedroom swam into focus. It never came. She blinked hard, again and again, but she remained in Hugh’s car, driving west on the turnpike, with Hugh in the passenger seat, his pistol pointed at her.
Noah was in the back seat, passed out from whatever Hugh injected him with. She knew he wasn’t dead; she could feel he was alive, but he was peacefully oblivious to the horror transpiring as the wheels turned inexorably onward.
She contemplated careening into the median, or turning the wheel hard to the right and running into the ditch, but Noah wasn’t buckled in and she was terrified of killing him. Panic rose in her throat but she choked it back, refusing to allow Hugh the satisfaction.
John, she thought. When would John realize something happened? When would Julie discover Noah was missing? They shared such a bond; they were closer than two people could be and they had a connection. Surely, Julie would realize something was wrong. Surely, she would talk to her father. Surely they would call the police and…
And what? The police wouldn’t do a thing. There was nothing suspicious about a woman and her son taking a trip.
Miranda despaired. That Hugh intended to kill them was certain. He would use them up and spit them out, skin and hair and bones, somewhere in the Nevada desert where coyotes and buzzards would finish the work of hiding them forever. If Noah didn’t wake up and let Julie know—somehow—what was happening, she knew they were doomed.
The police were very nice. So nice, and patient, and painfully condescending. Calmly, step by step, they told Julie and John why there was nothing to be alarmed about.
First, the note, in Miranda’s handwriting. Sure, it was a little wobbly, but she was excited about her trip and they were in a hurry. Second, there was no sign of a struggle. If they were abducted by a strange ex-husband, there almost certainly would be a violent struggle. It was difficult enough to abduct one person, much less two.
John and Julie were not convinced, and protested that something was terribly wrong—their friends would never take a vacation without telling them, they weren’t answering their phones and the house was far too clean for a normal Saturday. Julie broke down in tears, but protocol was protocol. The cops didn’t chase down vacationers who neglected to inform their neighbors.
“Don’t you worry,” the senior officer said, all but patting Julie on the top of the head. “I’m sure they’ll come back safe and sound in a week, just like the note says, and you can give your boyfriend the what-for then.”
Julie suppressed the urge to set his hair on fire, a talent she didn’t have but was almost certain she could summon at that moment.
“She’s not answering her phone, officer,” John said again. “Neither of them are. It just goes to voicemail.”
“Well, they’re driving, you know? It’s not safe to talk on the phone. They’ll call you back real soon, I’m sure of it.”
“And if they don’t? What if they don’t return in a week? Will you do something then?”
“You give us a call back then,” he said, nodding. “We’ll alert the cavalry.”
They left, and John and Julie looked at one another in grief and distress.
“Get some things together.” John said, grimly. “We’ve got to help ourselves now.”