So the Kindle version of Noah Knows got a shiny new facelift…
I’m pretty excited about it because I feel it captures the soul of the book a LOT better than the original did. Am working on getting the paperback cover changed as well, so stay tuned.
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.
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.”
Fatass was not an exemplary cellmate, despite turning over the most valuable information Hugh ever dreamed of.
Sloppy, noisy, and prone to fits of tears, he caused Hugh to practice deep breathing more than an Indian yogi in an ashram. It was that, or bury his fist in Fatass’s fleshy face.
He much preferred his first roommate, a twitchy small-time drug dealer who held up a convenience store with a rubber gun. When Hugh was moved to Oklahoma due to overcrowding in Alabama, however, he found himself stuck with Fatass. God, the snoring! It nearly drove him to homicide. He was determined to control his violent tendencies, and breathed so deeply he nearly sucked the mortar from the bricks of their cell.
Fatass loved to talk, endlessly, mostly about food. Sometimes about horse racing. Sometimes about fishing. Hugh asked for extra time with the New Age therapist and she gave him coping techniques for tuning it out.
“Be the light, Hughie, remember how badly you want to get out of here,” she purred to him after their sessions. “Edward doesn’t feel his own divinity, but you do.”
Hugh repeated it to himself as he lay on his bunk and Fatass prattled on. He wanted to get out. He was on the right track. He was compliant; he gave information when he had it, and he didn’t get involved in gang politics. He was solitary and malleable, and invisible to other inmates.
Fatass did not begin to understand this. He seemed to think they were bunkmates at a sleep-away camp, and constantly sidled up to him as though they were going to get a flashlight and tell ghost stories under a blanket.
He was a big, slobbery dog, and Hugh hated dogs. He imagined shoving his brown plastic spork into Fatass’s spinal column, or scooping his eyeballs out in one swift motion, but he refrained. He did indulge his fantasies, however, as he lay on his bunk and tried to blot out his cellmate’s voice. He knew it wasn’t waves lapping at the shore of a Caribbean beach, as his New Age therapist recommended, but he went with what worked.
One day, thinking about knotting his bedsheet around Fatass’s neck and pulling, tighter and tighter, until his voice was just a gurgle and his eyes rolled white into his head, his ears pricked at something Fatass said. It was strange enough to make him sit up on his bed and swing his legs out, feet flat on the concrete floor.
“What did you say?”
“When?” Fatass asked, flustered at the sudden interest.
“A moment ago. You said something about a kid. A kid with powers or some bullshit.”
“Noah. He’s why I’m in here. I just wanted him to help me. I asked nicely, but Miranda, she wouldn’t let me near him.”
“Miranda. You said Miranda?”
“Where were they from?”
“Tulsa, like me.”
“What did she look like?”
“She’s really pretty. Smiles a lot. Nice legs, red hair. What’s the deal? Do you know her?”
Hugh didn’t answer. This is impossible, he thought. There must be hundreds of Mirandas out there. Maybe more. Maybe a quarter of those had red hair. Maybe a fifth of that quarter were pretty. But only one could be from Tulsa and have a son named Noah.
What were the chances? What were the goddamned chances this was the same Miranda, with the same bastard offspring?
“She’s late twenties, I guess,” Fatass continued. “Maybe thirty. Doubt it, though. Kid was three. No, five. He told me he was five, and it was his birthday; I remember that.”
If Hugh believed in god, he would have given thanks to this cosmic juxtaposition, because the chances were infinitesimal. Infinitesimal.
“What do you mean, the kid had some kind of powers?”
“He had powers; probably still has them,” Fatass gushed. He was excited to have the focused attention of his cellmate. He grew animated. “He could tell which horses were going to win; he knew the winning numbers of the lottery. He was golden, I’m telling you.”
“You kidnapped him?”
Fatass shrugged and hedged. “If you wanna say it like that. I needed some help. I didn’t mean to do anything wrong.” His eyes filled with tears. “I wanted to win, and Miranda wouldn’t let him help. I just wanted to borrow Noah for a while.”
The tears turned to sobs and Hugh turned away in disgust, throwing himself back onto his bunk. Eventually, the crying stopped, and the endless narrative resumed.
“It was Joanie’s idea, really. She said she could get him easy, just walk up and grab him, and she did. Chloroform. I didn’t know you could just buy that stuff. We got him to pick some horses. The first ones were wrong. I think the chloroform messed with his head. But the next time, he was right on, every horse. I won over five thousand dollars. I should have bet more, but I was playing it safe. I didn’t have another chance after the cops showed up, and Joanie, she…” he burst into tears again.
“So that’s why you’re here, then?” snapped Hugh.
“Yeah.” hiccupped Mr. McGraw. He then informed Hugh that Noah had won the lottery a few years back, and that he had seen it on the TV. Surely there should be a news story about that somewhere.
Hugh, for the first time in his life, didn’t know what to think. He didn’t believe Fatass, not really, not that Miranda’s kid had special powers, at least. He categorically disbelieved all of that horseshit, but when he mentioned it to Serena the New Age therapist she strenuously assured him of the possibility that Noah was, indeed, gifted.
“Gifted people are uncommon, but they’re all around us.” She breathed in his ear as she helped him into Parivrrta Janu Sirsasana IV, an asana he was trying to master. He grunted. It took his breath away.
“Damn…kid…should be…retarded,” he said, his internal organs smashed into the space of a grapefruit, his nose nearly touching the back of his knee. “…Not…even…mine…”
“People who are clairvoyant often don’t realize it at first,” she said. “But their powers often peak in adolescence.”
“Fatass…said…he picked…lottery numbers,” he said, his spine screaming. “…and winning horses…” he panted.
“I’m sure he did,” she sang as she took hold of his toes and brought them behind his back. “I knew a yogi once who could pick winning horses every day. He didn’t, of course, because he took vows of poverty. But he could.”
“You really…think so…?” He broke out of his pose and lay prone on the floor in savasana.
“I know so, darling,” she said, standing on her hands, effortlessly. “I know so.”
Later, Hugh used his 30 minutes of internet time and found the story of the lottery winners from years before. Sure enough, there it was, just as Fatass had detailed, complete with a picture of a small bespectacled man, his daughter…and Miranda and Noah.
His mind reeled and his world view shook. For an imminently rational man, things like psychic ability made no sense. For an imminently rational man, however, testimony and evidence were the only things that made sense. In that moment, Hugh believed.
That was also the day he started to fashion his plan.
It was simple enough: recoup the money Miranda took from him, and dispose of both her and her son. He wasn’t going to be stupid, however, like Fatass. He didn’t have to rely on some woman to have balls for him. He would be patient, as patient as needed. Prison taught him how to wait, and he was good at it.
So he waited, even after he got out, and cultivated a quiet rage until it flowered full and ready for harvest.
Pearl insisted that Noah take the Fourth of July weekend off. She didn’t want her best worker burning out. It didn’t take a lot to convince him; he worked every weekend since school let out and he was ready for a break. John suggested they all spend the day at Keystone Lake and Miranda said they should rent a cabin for the night, which was hailed as an even better idea.
The day of the 4th dawned bright and hot, and as they loaded up the cars there was a buzz of excitement. The Miller family had grown and spread over the years; Jeremy was on the East Coast getting his medical degree and Jane was married and living in Arkansas. She had two small boys of her own. Miranda loved that John was a grandpa; his beard was flecked with gray now, and the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes did nothing to detract from his appearance.
Only Joe, who was 25 and working on a seismic exploration team in Eastern Oklahoma, and Jacob, who was 24 and just received his Masters in Engineering, were able to come with John and Julie. Noah liked the two brothers and was looking forward to spending more time with them.
They waved to him from across the street as they secured a small trailer to John’s Tahoe, upon which sat Joe’s latest toy, a bright blue jet ski.
“Need any help?” Noah called.
“Nope, I think we got it.” Jacob smiled. “Looking so forward to this.”
“Me, too. It’s been a long time since I just laid around and didn’t do anything.”
“It’s true,” Miranda said as she walked out of the house with a cooler in her arms. “Kid works harder than I do.”
“Good morning!” John called to her, also laden with a cooler. “Geez, do you think we’re taking enough beer?”
“No,” Joe and Jacob replied in unison.
Julie walked over to talk to Noah, her hair in two dark braids down her back, a floppy hat framing her face, which was scrubbed clean of any makeup. She tilted it back with her eyes closed, facing the rising sun which was already baking the landscape at 9:30 a.m.
She sighed. “Feels good. Can’t wait to get a little color!”
“I’ll probably fry,” Noah laughed. “I never tan; I only sunburn.”
“Well, take my hat, then,” she said, pressing it over his head. “You’ll need it more than me. I turn brown instantly. Mom used to call me her wild Indian in the summer.”
“I remember that,” Noah said, striking a pose in the sun hat and making her laugh.
“Julie, you look so pretty today,” Miranda said, coming around the side of the car to give her a hug. Julie made a face.
“She’s right, you do,” Noah said. “You look beautiful.”
“Oh shut up.” Julie blew a raspberry at him.
“Why? Somebody going to sing the kissing song at us?”
“Hey Miranda, do you need us to take anything in the Tahoe?” Joseph asked, coming across the street to examine the contents of her Accord, which was packed tight enough to explode. “And who’s singing the kissing song?”
“No one!” Julie said loudly. “I’m going to go make sure I got everything.” She fled back across the street and disappeared into the house.
“Thanks, Joe, I think we might need you to take a thing or two for us,” Miranda answered. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to see out the back window.”
“I think Julie wanted to ride with us if we can make room.” Noah said, opening the back door and catching a landslide of inflatable water toys.
Here, hand me those,” Joe said. “You get that stuff. There’s plenty of room in the Tahoe.”
Things were finally sorted out and the families pulled slowly out of their driveways, John leading the way. The drive east took just over an hour, and by the time they pulled up to the cabin the sun was high in the sky and the air was oppressively hot. They unloaded the cars, and it was decided that choosing rooms was a job for much, much later. Within twenty minutes everyone was in a bathing suit and headed for the dock.
The lake sparkled and the birds were raucous in the oaks and pines, flitting from one to the other and whistling their nameless tunes. The throbbing drone of cicadas joined with them to form the background music to an Oklahoma summer. Miranda and John brought up the rear, laden with bags, towels, toys and blankets. Julie walked in step with her brothers and Noah.
“Isn’t it great?” she exclaimed. “Look at that water; that lake is mine, bitches!”
She sprang forward, half a second ahead of the boys. Pounding across the wooden walkway and past the paddleboat anchored there, they reached the end of the dock at the same time and catapulted into the water. Noah whooped as he came up for air, shaking his hair out of his face.
“This feels great, Mama. Come in; the water is perfect.”
Miranda spread the blanket carefully on the deck and arranged her bags and shoes on the edges so it couldn’t blow away. Setting down the stack of towels, she stripped off her gauzy cover-up and walked to the ladder at the opposite end.
“Just jump in, Mama,” Noah suggested.
“I’m afraid I’d lose my suit if I did that.” She laughed, adjusting her bikini. John realized he was staring and tried to pull his eyes away.
Julie smiled. “Hey, let’s all go skinny dipping tonight!”
“I’m not sure how appropriate that would be.” John protested.
“Of course it’s not appropriate; that’s the point,” Julie said, laughing. “At any rate, I’m going to do it. I’ve always wanted to.”
“Are you getting in or what, Dad?” Jacob asked.
“Indeed, I am. Everybody out of the way. Let me show you how it’s done.” With a running start he threw himself off the end of the dock, arcing high into the air before tucking his knees to his chest and landing with a terrific splash. They all applauded as his head broke the surface.
“I think that was the best cannonball I’ve ever seen,” Miranda said. “I’m impressed, sir.”
“Why thank you ma’am,” John said, and tipped an imaginary cap to her.
They spent the afternoon in the water, racing and paddle-boating and making a complete mockery of synchronized swimming. Joseph and Jacob unloaded the Jet Ski, taking the first turn with it and coming back to report, with delighted smiles, that beautiful girls occupied the dock to the south. Miranda broke out sandwiches and chips from her bags, and John hauled the cooler of beer and soda down from the house.
They sat on the end of the dock with their feet in the water as the sun sank lower and painted the sky a brilliant burnt orange. Miranda sighed with contentment.
“Is there anything better than this?” she asked. “I mean, really? What could be better than friends and family and the lake and summertime?”
“Nothing,” said almost everyone in unison.
“I think I’ll see if I can join the party next door,” Joe said, turning to his brother. “Are you coming with me?”
Joe and Jacob climbed onto the Jet Ski and roared off down the lake.
John looked concerned but Noah smiled. He knew the boys’ numbers; numbers that were far in the future, and he wasn’t worried.
“It’s almost dark enough. Let’s blow something up,” Noah suggested. They cleaned up the dock, hauling everything back to the cabin and leaving it in a pile on the living room floor.
“Vacation sure turns me into a slob,” Miranda said.
“Vacation?” Noah asked, incredulous. “Mama, I hate to break it to you, but it’s not just vacation.”
“Your secret’s out, Miranda.” John said. “Not that it was much of a secret…”
“You guys are mean.”
She pouted, and John pulled her into a hug, laughing. The touch of her sun-warmed skin was almost more than he could take, however, and he released her quickly, striding briskly to locate the bag from the roadside fireworks stand.
Noah found it buried under an avalanche of linens and held it aloft, triumphantly. They went to the hard-packed clay that led to the dock, chose a launch site, and John held his hand out for the first rocket.
Suddenly uneasy, Noah gripped the neck of the bag tighter and hesitated. The contents of the bag seemed alive and malevolent, writhing like snakes and pushing to get out. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
“Noah? Are you OK?” Julie asked.
“I don’t know.” he said, faintly, waiting. John looked at him curiously and then at Miranda, who raised her eyebrows but said nothing. Julie touched his arm and felt it, too; a chill ran down her back and caused the small hairs on her neck to prickle.
“What is it?” she asked. “The fireworks?”
“I think so,” he said, staring at the bag. “Or, maybe. Maybe just one.”
He tipped the bag onto the ground, resisting the urge to stomp on all the explosives like deadly scorpions. The brightly colored packages with names like “Medusa” and “Golden Sunflower,” tumbled inertly to the soil.
Noah scanned them, looking for anything to betray danger. One by one he picked them up and as he reached for the fifth—a $15 “moon rocket” that promised to explode in a shower of multi-colored spirals of sparks—he recoiled. A sudden image of blood and fire and hands and faces blown to smithereens swam before his eyes; screams unuttered echoed in his mind. He looked at Julie and she was pale.
“That one,” she nodded. “It’s defective.”
“How on earth can you tell?” John asked. He bent over the pile of fireworks and examined them. It was all Noah could do to stay upright; he felt faint with horror but as John reached for the defective firework, he batted his hand away and grabbed it. He ran as fast as he could to the edge of the dock, and pitched it as hard as he could into the dark glassy water.
“What’s going on, Julie?” John asked Julie.
“You just have to trust him, Dad.”
Noah returned, walking slowly and looking weak. “Probably a short fuse,” he said.
They all agreed to forego fireworks, and simply enjoy what the neighbors shot off instead. The bag was dumped in the trash and Miranda went inside to find more snacks. They walked back to the dock and sat in the dark, eating chocolate chip cookies and watching the explosions around them, exclaiming breathlessly over the biggest ones.
Noah stretched out on the weathered grey wood to gaze at the night sky, feeling the cathartic effects of chocolate sooth his nerves. He stopped thinking of the what ifs. Julie lay next to him and they took turns picking out constellations.
“There’s Orion,” Noah said. “I always find him, he’s an easy one. And the Big Dipper.”
“There,” Julie said. “Cassiopeia, that W-looking thing.”
Noah yawned. “I wonder if we could rearrange the stars.”
They lay in silence for a moment and then, with a smile in her voice, Julie spoke.
“Polaris,” she said, pointing. “Let’s bring it closer to that little star next to it.”
“What if it works?” Noah asked. “Do you realize what that will do to celestial navigation? Talk about an action with consequences.”
“Fine. We’ll move the little star closer to Polaris.”
They focused on the little star. Minutes passed, and nothing happened. They looked at one another and laughed with relief.
“How terrifying would it be to have that much power?” Julie asked.
“What are you two talking about over there?” Miranda called from across the dock.
“We can’t rearrange the stars,” Noah answered.
“Oh.” Pause. “Well, that’s good, right?”
“Miranda, are you going to skinny dip with me, or what?” Julie asked. “Noah says he won’t and I know Dad won’t, but I really want to. Will you?”
“Of course I will,” Miranda answered without hesitation, standing. “Now?”
Julie hopped up.
“Now, wait a minute.” John said, clambering to his feet. “I think I’ll just head back to the house then, if you’re determined.”
“Dad,” Julie exclaimed. “You’re blushing! I can see it in the dark.”
“Don’t torment your father, Julie,” Noah scolded. “I’ll go with you, Mr. Miller. Personally, I don’t want some fish thinking there’s a new and delicious variety of worm in the water.”
“Worm?” Julie asked, eyebrows raised.
“All right. Sea snake.” Noah said, grinning.
“It’s not that I don’t want to stay,” John stammered. Miranda giggled. “Are you sure you’ll be all right, I mean? It’s not really safe, swimming in the dark you know.”
“Oh, Dad, come on,” Julie groaned. “We’re just going to jump in and jump out again. I promise.”
He tried to smile but between the blushing and the worrying he was unsuccessful. He and Noah walked slowly up the path, where they sat on the deck and listened to the women shrieking and splashing.
“Beautiful night,” John said.
“Thanks for saving my life earlier. Or my hand. Or, whatever.”
“I don’t know that you would have died, exactly. But it wasn’t going to be pretty.”
“I believe you.”
There was silence for a moment, and more shrieking floated up through the tree tops.
“Is that happy screaming, you think?” John asked anxiously.
“Definitely happy.” Noah said “Besides, I think they’re done now. See, they’re coming up the path.”
“Clothes on.” Noah laughed.
“Oh, thank God. No. That didn’t come out right.”
“I think I know what you mean, Mr. Miller.” You could light a fire from the heat coming off his face, Noah thought with a grin.
The women came up the deck stairs and stood dripping before them, elated.
“Fun?” John asked.
“Fun,” Julie said, flinging herself into an Adirondack chair and giggling. “It’s like swimming in space. Scary, but fun.”
“Well, let’s break out the champagne then,” John said. He went to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of sparkling wine and four flutes. “I wanted to bring some bubbly, just for fun. I’ll even let you have a sip, my darling daughter, although you disregard my better judgments and worry me silly.”
“What about Miranda?” Julie protested. “She worried and disregarded you, but you’re only picking on me. Does she get champagne, too?”
“Miranda is a grown woman who can do as she pleases, obviously. I am not the boss of her.”
“Yeah,” Miranda said, grinning. “Now hand over the glass.”
John passed out the glasses and poured the wine. They sat in silence, enjoying the sounds of the summer night and the last of the fireworks exploding above them. Lifting his glass, he cleared his throat.
“To not dying while skinny dipping,” he said.
“To not dying while lighting fireworks,” Noah added.
“To not dying, at all,” Julie said.
“Nobody gets to die,” Miranda laughed. “To us, forever and ever.”
They clinked their glasses together and drank.
“Think I’ll go figure out which bed is mine,” Noah said after a few minutes. “I’m really tired.”
“I’ll come with you,” Julie offered. “I’m getting eaten by mosquitos.”
Saying their good nights and bestowing kisses, Noah and Julie went inside, leaving their parents on the deck. The night was breezy and warm but the thick humidity had lifted. From the woods they could hear scurrying creatures going about their nocturnal business. Miranda told John the bad dreams were getting more frequent, and more disturbing.
“Noah’s heading into his last year of high school,” he said. “Maybe you’re anxious about that? Sending him into the great unknown has got to be stressful for you.”
“Maybe,” Miranda sighed and drank the last of her champagne. It was true. Thinking of Noah leaving made her heart sink. “I don’t know what I’ll do without him. Do you think Hugh represents that fear of letting him go?”
“I think he could. Dreams are almost always symbolic, aren’t they? I think it’s much more likely than Hugh coming back to harm Noah.”
Miranda nodded, slowly. She had to admit that when it was said out loud, it sounded completely ridiculous. The idea of Hugh caring anything about what she and Noah were doing after thirteen years was ludicrous.
“What about Noah?” John continued. “Has he felt anything ominous lately? Does he have bad dreams? Anything about Hugh?”
“He says he hasn’t, which makes me feel better. If something bad is going to happen, he’d feel it, of all people.”
John looked at his hands, still firmly attached to his arms, and suddenly felt a great sense of gratitude towards Miranda’s son.
“You need to resolve these issues with Noah before you lose any more sleep,” he said.
“Yes,” Miranda said, feeling lighter. “I will. I feel sure that’s all it is now. I always feel better after talking to you, John.”
“Shucks,” he said, gathering up her hand. “What are friends for?”
“Isn’t this great?” Miranda asked. “I have really missed hanging out with those two kids of ours. We used to make time for it, remember?”
“The years have flown, if I may be maudlin. Let’s take them out to eat one of these weekends; do you think we could? Before schools starts up again? And maybe see a movie? Like we used to.”
“That is a great idea.” She said, smiling.
Standing, he held his hand out to Miranda, who took it and rose to her feet, as well. For a moment they stood hand in hand, and then she moved beneath his arm for a hug. He held her tightly, breathing in her heady scent, a mixture of patchouli and sweat and suntan lotion. The warmth of her skin filled him with longing and the desire that dozed on and off in his heart came fully awake with a roar.
Heart beating faster, he reached for her chin with one, trembling hand and lifted her mouth to his own, braced for rejection. She met his lips and turned towards him, bringing both arms around his neck and melting into his embrace with an ease that answered his own longing more than any words could have.
With an enormous crashing that made them both jump, Joseph and Jacob came stumbling up the stairs to the deck, alternating between raucous cackling and shushing each other. Declaring their undying love for girls named Lisa and Linda, they giggled and clapped Miranda and John on the backs, describing the events of the night in tipsy, if not meticulous detail, interrupting one another constantly.
By the time they finished and staggered to bed, it was well past 2 a.m. and Miranda was asleep in her chair. Shaking her gently, John helped her up and put her in the nicest bedroom, noting with a thankful heart that Noah and Julie put sheets on all the beds in the house before climbing into the bunks in the family room.
With a sigh of regret and longing, he collapsed onto the couch and fell asleep to the glow of the TV.
He would have been out prison sooner if it wasn’t for Fatass. He just couldn’t let it go. He couldn’t believe that Hugh knew Miranda and her son, couldn’t stop talking about what a coincidence it was, couldn’t stop acting like it was some cosmic setup for them to be the best friends, ever.
In the weight room, Fatass would wave at him from the window, yelling encouragement. In the mess hall, he would plunk his tray down next to Hugh and eat in his disgusting, ravenous way, begging for whatever food Hugh scorned. And in the yard he was his shadow, if his shadow had been an amorphous blob of sycophantic desperation.
Hugh could have handled this. He could have handled the ingratiating smile, the unctuous manners, the desperation in the man’s eyes, and the constancy of his devotion. He could have handled this, he would have been fine going along, day after endless day, being the object of the man’s singular attention. But the talking. The goddam, ceaseless, ever-fucking-lasting talking.
He hadn’t meant to do it. He hadn’t planned it. But the day had started out crappy; he woke with a violent start from a nightmare in which he was falling into an abyss, and punched the concrete wall hard enough to raise a large bruise on his knuckles. After breakfast he was informed that his therapist, Serena, had the flu and would not be in to teach her yoga class.
Disappointed and weary, Hugh was interrupted in his daily affirmations by Fatass, who chortled when he heard them and asked if Hugh truly believed they would work. From there he launched into a story about how he wanted to be a fireman as a kid, but the other kids made fun of him.
He blithered on, completely oblivious to the danger he was courting. Serena’s voice in Hugh’s head was no longer working. She was telling him to concentrate on his breath, to listen to the in and out of it, the sound of it like the ocean lapping the beach and wasn’t that soothing? She was telling him he could do anything, that he did not have to be controlled by his anger, that he had power over what he wanted and what he wanted right then was to lay down on his bunk and tune out the annoyance.
Only he didn’t. He didn’t lay down on his bunk and tune Fatass out. He wanted to punch him, hard, right in the gonads, wherever they might lie buried beneath that enormous paunch. He wanted to grab ahold of them and squeeze until the man’s face turned purple; he wanted to yank hard until Fatass bled out his urethra, and to slam his head against the wall until his face was jelly.
And so he did.
By the time the guards got to him and dragged him away, Fatass was lying inertly on the floor in the fetal position, blood pouring from his nose and mouth.
Hugh was put in solitary confinement for a month, a punishment he found beautifully welcome, and laughed loudly and rather maniacally for the first hour from nothing more than relief at not having to hear a single human voice.
He was not put up for parole at the end of the year. Nor the year after. But after that, he finally got a break.
Read from the beginning of Part One here
Read from the beginning of Part Two here
John was drowning in debt. There was no way to run from it now. Jenny’s medical bills were over a million dollars, and his insurance covered barely half of that. He considered selling the house and moving back to California to live with his parents until he could get a handle on his finances. He didn’t want to declare bankruptcy–not yet–but it was going to take some serious intervention to keep him from the inevitable lawsuits. Creditors could be vicious.
He didn’t want to leave Tulsa; it was a great town. He liked his job at the World and had lots of friends. Julie would be devastated, naturally. She shared such a bond with Noah, and he flinched at the thought of pulling them apart. She was not your average girl, he knew this, and while he did not know the full extent of her power, he was well aware that she was blessed with unusual abilities.
It was Jenny who brought it to his attention, of course. The Absent Minded Professor, she called him affectionately. She said he’d forget that they had five children if she didn’t remind him.
She had played a memory game with their youngest on the office floor one night when Julie was three years old to show him what she called Julie’s “mind games.”
He never forgot the image of the small girl, tiny fingers flipping over the square cards with animal pictures on them to make matches within seconds. She was never wrong, finding the mate each time without hesitation. Jenny’s eyes were wide, staring at him with a small smile on her face. He shook his head, disbelieving, until Julie played the game three times in a row, never missing a match.
Since then, they had tried to impress upon Julie the importance of keeping her talents somewhat hidden, making sure she understood just how special they were. Jenny told her to stay out of peoples’ minds, that it was rude to go poking around uninvited, and Julie had nodded soberly, a serious child with dark, fathomless eyes. He worried about her.
Until she found Noah. He marveled at how perfectly suited they were for each other, and thanked god for the gift of such a friend. He knew from Miranda that Noah had secrets talents of his own that increased the depth of their bond, and he feared the consequences of separating them. He didn’t know how to tell her they were moving.
In the end, of course, he didn’t have to.
Tears pooling in her eyes, she confronted him after school one winter day, saying she had been hit with the knowledge while she was eating lunch; it hit her in the middle of her bologna sandwich. She told Noah, and together they agreed that such a thing must not happen.
He tried to explain to Julie the depth of his financial distress but she wasn’t really listening. How could she understand? At nine, she knew only one thing, and that was that her only friend was going to be taken away from her. Even promises of a German Shepherd puppy and visits to the beach didn’t help; she was destroyed at the thought of moving. She ran from the room and across the street to his house.
She poured the story out to Miranda. She, too, was shocked and horrified at the idea of the Millers moving away, and immediately began to wonder just how bad the situation was.
“Dad said it was over a million dollars,” Julie sniffled. “That’s a lot, really a lot, I know. But maybe we can raise some money somehow. Maybe we could have a garage sale.”
“Or a car wash,” Noah added.
“I’m sorry sweeties,” Miranda said. “But car washes and garage sales don’t make half a million dollars.”
Noah ran and got his piggy bank, which was nothing more than an old pickle jar filled with nickles and quarters and a few dollar bills.
“Come on, Julie,” he said. “I’m going to give my money to your dad.”
As they crossed the street hand in hand, Miranda realized that financial security resided in the brains of the two children. She had known it, of course, ever since Noah picked Mr. McGraw’s winning lottery numbers, but she usually couldn’t think of it without bile rising in her throat. Its association with greed and death was indelibly imprinted upon her mind.
Now, however, everything was different.
This wouldn’t be money for gain. This wouldn’t be money used for despicable purposes by despicable people. This was a crisis situation—an opportunity to use Noah’s powers for something really important and good.
Still, she hesitated. Actions have consequences, that she knew well. A butterfly flapping its wings over Paris might cause a mudslide in Peru.
Or maybe this was fate. Their children weren’t part of the spectral order, they were subject to, and part of, all the machinations that created the ever-unfolding tapestry of life. They were woven into it, as much as she, John, and everyone else was. The only thing that made them different was an acute sensitivity to initial conditions. They didn’t know the future; perhaps they simply felt the present better than anyone around them. Better, but not perfectly.
And that wasn’t fate. She liked that idea. Despite his powers, Noah couldn’t possibly know everything. Things evolved and changed, and he wasn’t a supercomputer. He was just a little boy. He and Julie, they were children with gifts, and it was time to use them for something good.
She headed across the street to talk to John.
“Miranda, no.” John said. “This is unconscionable and I think you know that. We can’t use these children like that. It seems abusive somehow.”
“I know how you feel; believe me, I do,” Miranda said. “I wrestle with the ramifications too. I’m the one whose kid was kidnapped for this very thing, remember? But why the hell should they have these powers at all if it can’t be used for something good?
“Start toying with fate, and everything gets messy; really messy,” John said, pacing the floor. “If we are meant to move to California we shouldn’t try to change that.”
“Because you’re broke? Maybe Julie and Noah found each other so that they can help you stay; what are the chances they wound up across the street from each other? I can’t believe these things are accidents.”
“Everything we do affects something else,” John said. “The kids need to understand they can’t be using their…their…”
“It’s OK to say ‘powers’,” Miranda interrupted. “That’s what they are.”
“Powers, then. Powers. They can’t use them to get out of any jam that comes along. They need to have a normal life.”
“They’ll never have a normal life,” Miranda said. “And there’s a reason for that, I believe.”
“Chance, fate, destiny,” John sat on the couch wearily. “That’s what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? What’s the point?”
“I was a philosophy major. Long ago, when dinosaurs roamed. I loved the whole free will vs. fate thing. I think neither one is right. Fate is only a suggestion – a strong suggestion at times – but what’s the harm in trying? Maybe it won’t work. I don’t think it’s wrong to try.”
“It’s wrong because it will get the kids’ hopes up. If it doesn’t work, it will destroy them.”
“They’re already destroyed by the thought of you leaving,” Miranda insisted. “I don’t think it can get any worse.”
“Maybe you’re right,” John said. He sat for a long time, and the room was silent. “Let me think about it a little more, Miranda. I need to think about it.”
John thought. He grappled with the issues of right and wrong and ethics and principle. And he still could not fight his way out of the quagmire of gray he found himself in.
“I don’t know what to do,” he told Miranda. “I wish I had some powers to tell me if this is a good idea, but I don’t. I think Julie got her gift straight from her mother.”
“None of us can know what will happen,” Miranda said. “Ultimately, whatever you believe fate is, it still wins, doesn’t it? It’s not like we can outsmart it.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
They gathered Noah and Julie and asked them, taking turns, what numbers they felt were due to fall that Wednesday as the Oklahoma lottery was run. The jackpot was up to $1,420,000, and it would be enough—plenty—to get the Millers out of the hole. Julie and Noah thought carefully, faces somber, and gave their guesses.
They were correct, of course. John deposited the money into his bank account, stunned. Miranda and Noah steadfastly refused to take a penny of it, no matter how hard he insisted that part of it was theirs.
The Tulsa World ran a story on John, recounting the details of his wife’s death and the terrible state of health care in the U.S. that left him with such debt. He told the tale of how his daughter and her best friend had picked the winning numbers but her friend, a little boy named Noah Griffith, gave up his portion to keep them from moving away. It was a special piece, a heartwarming human interest story that had the newscasters dabbing at their eyes.
Mr. McGraw, watching it from his prison cell, teared up more than once.
Read from the beginning of part one here…
And from the beginning of part two here…
Noah Knows, Part Two, Chapters 7-10
The summer would be officially over in one week. Julie and Noah would attend the same elementary school, just two blocks away, and Julie questioned him relentlessly. They both felt the usual quivers of anxiety and excitement at the prospect of school, but this year was more anticipated than most because they had one another. Noah felt happier and more thrilled than he could ever remember.
The afternoon was hot and sticky and they played the cloud game until there were thunderheads overhead–the first in two months–and the county held its collective breath and prayed they would crack open and pour rain. Sitting on the swing set in Julie’s back yard, Noah swung as high as he could and tried to answer Julie’s inquiries.
“Are the kids nice?” Sure.
“Do you have to do PE?” Yes.
“Do you play a lot of dodgeball?” Unfortunately, yes.
“Are there bullies?” A few.
“What’s the playground like?” The usual.
Julie swung and tried to think of more questions.
“Will you still be my friend at school?”
“Will you still be my friend–you know–even though I’m a girl?”
“Don’t be silly. Of course I will. You’re the only friend I’ve got.”
An enormous clap of thunder made them jump, and they came to a scudding halt on the swings, viewing the clouds with anticipation. A moment later fat raindrops began pelting the dry ground, soaking Noah and Julie in seconds. Shrieking, they crouched low and ran for the back porch. Jenny stepped out and handed them two old beach towels.
They sat in the breakfast nook, sampling Jenny’s peanut butter cookies and watching the rain pour down. Noah did not think he could feel more content than he did at that moment, with the smell of baking all around him and the sound of water sheeting off the roof. Jenny was really nice, he thought. And beautiful, too, just like Mama.
When school began, Noah and Julie were not seated next to each other but it didn’t really matter. They communicated throughout the air above the heads of their classmates and were often struck with fits of giggles simultaneously, to the perplexity of their teacher. The other kids teased them for being friends and sang round after round of the kissing song until Julie’s face turned red and she kicked them in the shins.
They sat together at lunch and played together at recess. They walked home after school and discussed the day’s events. If they had homework they usually wound up at Julie’s house, sitting with their heads bent over their papers, working silently. Numbers made absolutely no sense to Julie and she often relied on Noah to explain the lesson to her.
“I don’t get word problems at all,” she said one day. “If I take something away, I still have it. I just took it.”
“Taking away means you don’t have it anymore,” he said. “They really mean somebody else took it away.”
“If that’s what they mean, why don’t they just say it,” she stated with a frown, looking at the fingers she held up to keep track of what she was doing.
Noah never counted on his fingers or had to stack numbers on top of each other to add and subtract. He never showed his work; he just put the answer down, a habit his teacher found suspect until she quizzed him after school one day. She was amazed at his abilities, telling Miranda that he was a prodigy. He was now doing high school algebra, studying alone at a carrel while his classmates ground through multiplication tables. He found it almost as easy as addition and subtraction.
“You’re so lucky,” Julie sighed. “I wish I had that power.”
“But you’re good at other stuff,” he said. “You’re the best artist in the whole school. And you’re really good at reading. I’m not so good at that.”
Julie was a voracious reader. She was currently on the forth book of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and like to read it out loud to Noah. Noah saw reading as a necessary evil, but he enjoyed hearing Julie’s voice and often requested a chapter after they were done with their homework. They would go outside to the swing set and she would read about talking animals and far away worlds as he swung himself higher and higher, the images floating through his mind like the clouds he tried to touch with his sneakers. He especially liked hearing about Aslan, the lion that ruled Narnia, and thought that if there was a God, maybe he was a little bit like that.
He had lots of questions he’d like to ask Aslan, even though Aslan never really answered questions. Still, hearing the story always made him a little less anxious about the things that didn’t make any sense.
Other than occasional homework, everything at school was enjoyable. Art class was messy and delightful, science was enlightening and exciting, and field trips broke the monotony. The only cloud that darkened the bright sky of learning was Gary.
Gary was a hormonal mess of a fifth grader, with a pouty, doughy face and the slightest wisp of facial hair, which he took inordinate pride in. He presented a looming hazard to the younger students at school. He was a genius at nothing except harassing those smaller than himself, and turned even recess into a stressful and ominous affair.
Like most bullies, he was subtly menacing, with no overt gestures of violence. His methods were covert: small digs in the ribs, whispered threats, stolen treats at lunchtime, and sudden pinches that left deep bruises.
He also chose a particular victim to receive the brunt of his abuse; in this case it was a third grader by the name of Danny. Danny was little, smaller even than most of the second graders, and had a high, piping voice that reminded Noah of the tiny flitting wrens that gathered at Mama’s bird feeder in the winter. As soon as he appeared at school, midway through the second month, Noah knew he was doomed.
On the playground, Gary’s eyes lit upon Danny at the monkey bars and he moved towards him like a bird of prey circling and preparing to strike. As Danny reached for the first bar, Gary swatted his hand and sent Danny sprawling onto the gravel. He stepped onto his back to reach the bar, and swung across, laughing loudly. Danny clambered to his feet, wiping the back of his hand across his bleeding lip.
Not a single teacher had seen it. Noah and Julie, sitting on the swings, watched with trepidation and disgust.
“We have to help,” Julie said.
Gary loomed over Danny and whispered something in his ear that drained the boy’s face of color and brought tears to his eyes. He reached into the back pocket of his jeans, took out a small wad of money and handed it to Gary.
He snatched it gleefully and put it in his own pocket, giving Danny a hard pinch on the arm for good measure.
It went on like this for a week. Danny had his lunch money taken every day, and his arm was littered with bruises. The rest of the children tried to ignore it, their feelings of guilt eclipsed by the relief that Gary’s focus was on someone else.
Danny was a pariah, as no one wanted to be associated with the boy who garnered so much unwanted attention. Tormented and friendless, he sat alone at lunch and stared sadly at his food. He was even put on the same bus as Gary, a twist of fate Noah found particularly wrenching.
“Maybe we should tell the teachers,” Noah said.
“Are you kidding?” Julie asked. Gary will kill us for ratting on him.”
Noah definitely didn’t want that. The image of Gary’s over-developed body leaping out at them on their way home from school made his stomach lurch. No. If they did something, it had to be better than a futile appeal to the authorities.
“If we can make the black cloud go away, surely we can do something about Gary,” Julie said. “If only he knew what it was like to be bullied. I wish we could bully him.”
“Let’s make him bully himself,” Noah said, excitement in his eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“Concentrate,” he said, and nodded in Gary’s direction.
The bully had Danny by the arm. He curled his fingers into a fist and shook them in his face, lips moving with threats only the small boy could hear.
Together, Noah and Julie focused on one word. Punch.
Suddenly, Gary’s fist flew backwards at the most ridiculous angle, connecting solidly with his own nose. He slapped his hand over his face and started to cry. Blood streamed down his lip and he bawled louder, bringing the playground monitor to his side.
She pried his hand from his face and placed a tissue over his nose.
“He punched me!” Gary wailed, pointing at Danny. The teacher looked dubiously at Danny, and then back at Gary before marching him towards the school building and the nurse’s office.
Silence so thick that even the birds stopped singing followed in their wake, and everyone turned to stare at the waif of a boy standing beneath the monkey bars. A single handclap broke the hush. More and more joined in until there was a cacophony of applause bouncing off the nearby buildings and echoing across the playground.
A smile spread slowly across Danny’s face, and he bowed theatrically. Several other boys ran up to him and shook his hand, inviting him to join their game of foursquare. He nodded happily and took his place on the court.
Noah and Julie giggled behind their hands and high fived each other.
Noah was Superman. He could stop bullets with his eyeballs, and he could make time go backwards. Mama said he was her Superman even without the costume, and took lots of pictures before he left for school with Julie. Noah practiced flying as he waited for her in the front yard.
Julie was a fairy. She had wings and a wand that lit up and sparkled. Noah said she was pretty and she hit him with her wand.
“Don’t say that. The kids at school will sing the kissing song again.”
Miranda took their picture together.
“You guys have lots of fun today, OK? Bring me some candy.”
They started down the street, waving to both mothers as they went. Miranda called to Jenny from across the street.
“Aren’t they cute?”
“Sure are! Want to come in for a cup of coffee?”
“Wish I could, Jenny. I have to get to work, though. Rain check?”
The party was fun, but Noah felt a little sick as they walked home. The Twizzlers, Tootsie Rolls, and cupcakes churned in his stomach and he felt a growing sense of doom. He needed to throw up, he just knew it. Julie told him they were almost there, just one more corner.
As they rounded the curve, flashing lights brought them up short. Noah suddenly couldn’t feel his stomach at all. In front of Julie’s house was an ambulance. Mr. Miller’s car was in the driveway but partly on the grass. The door hung open. Noah felt the blood drain from his face.
Frozen on the sidewalk in mid-step, Julie stared at the scene.
“No,” she said in a small voice.
Then she ran. Noah was behind her, but he didn’t want to go into her house, didn’t want to see what he knew was there, didn’t want to see Mrs. Miller sprawled on the kitchen floor, didn’t want to see her peaceful, beautiful face, pale and still and framed by a halo of dark curls.
He ran to his house, threw up in the toilet, and crawled under his bed.
He heard Grandma coming up the stairs, calling for him. He couldn’t move; he was frozen in his Superman suit, Kryptonite had found him and he was completely undone. Tears squeezed from under his eyelids but the images would not leave his mind. He saw the dead tabby, stretched out beneath Grandma’s azaleas. He saw flies covering the cat. He saw flies covering…
“No!” he yelled, scrubbing his eyes with his fists.
Grandma came into the room and he knew she could see his legs sticking out from beneath the bed. She sat down on the floor.
“Please come out, Noah. Julie’s mom—“
“–Don’t say it,” Noah begged, and scrambled from under the bed. “Don’t say it, Grandma.” He pulled the comforter from his bed and wrapped himself tightly, burrowing until his head was deep beneath the layers.
Grandma tried to unwrap him a little but he clenched the comforter tighter. “I won’t say it, honey, I won’t say it.” She was crying, too, and pleading. “Take the blanket off, Noah. Please don’t wrap it so tight. I promise I won’t say anything else. Your mama is on her way home to be with you.”
Noah released his grip and Grandma left, wiping the tears that dripped from her eyes. He remained cocooned in the comforter, but still the images came.
Mr. Miller on his knees, weeping and rocking and beating the floor with his palm; his head on his wife’s chest, begging her to come back to him.
The paramedics standing by, arms holding equipment that only worked on the sick and hurt, not the dead and gone.
The Miller’s son, Jeremy, who came home early from work and found his mother, sitting on the couch with his head in his hands as tears fell to the carpet.
Julie, just standing. That was the worst image of all. Just standing and staring with her dark eyes full of storms again, eyes with no light at all anymore, eyes that looked without seeing.
The memorial service was painful but brief, and it lingered like the sharp stab of a needle that throbs for days afterwards. John spoke. He spoke clearly and extensively of Jenny’s vibrancy, her love for life and family and friends.
He held the urn containing her ashes and spoke of her love for the sea and his intention to return her to her beloved Pacific. He didn’t choke up once, but his eyes were small with sorrow and his shoulders bowed low. Safely back in the pew, he put his head down and wept silently, tears dripping off the tip of his nose.
Julie was a robot, rising and sitting as required, lifeless and blank. Noah watched her anxiously.
He tried to reach her but she had closed herself off to him completely, and he didn’t push. He remembered how it felt before he met her, and the loneliness echoed through him again. He pressed close to Mama, and felt comforted by her arm around him, but it wasn’t the same.
The service ended and everyone was invited to the meeting hall to share their favorite memories of Jenny and have some refreshments. Noah and Miranda joined the long line of well-wishers offering condolences to John and the children in the sanctuary.
Noah was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the family’s pain as they drew closer; it hit him with a tangible force, washing over him in a dark wave.
He felt Mr. Miller’s heart; its shattered pieces numb and trampled. He did not want to be there at all, Noah realized. He wanted to leave, to run far away and never come back, or to curl up in bed and never get out. Instead, he stood with his children and shook hands, allowed himself to be hugged, over and over, and offered words of encouragement to the endless stream of weeping friends and family.
It was a strange reversal of roles that Noah found disturbing. Why should Mr. Miller have to tell people it would be all right? He needed to hear it most, after all. He looked fragile, as though at any moment he might crack down the middle and fall into pieces on the sanctuary floor, but he continued.
The pressure was almost unbearable, and Noah felt faint in the light of Mr. Miller’s courage. He and Mama reached the family and Noah shook all the hands but Julie’s, as she was curled up on the pew, eyes closed, arms wrapped around her knees. No one made her get up, and Noah was grateful for that. Mama hugged Mr. Miller’s neck and said how sorry she was.
He nodded but Noah wasn’t sure he heard her at all, and they went on to the hall, where a microphone was set up and people were milling about, putting bread and cheese and crackers and cookies into their mouths without tasting any of it.
An old high school friend took the microphone and reminisced about Jenny. More contributors came, and more, until it seemed like everyone had something to add. There was some laughter, and many tears. Photos of Jenny were clustered on a memorial table, and a slideshow with more favorite pictures flashed by on the wall. Noah could hardly look at them. He asked Mama if they could leave. She took one look at his pale face and said yes.
Mama made him some hot tea and he sat at the kitchen table with a blanket around his shoulders. She took his temperature but it was normal. He was tired, ineffably weary, and he asked if he could go to bed. Mama picked him up and he didn’t protest that he was too big to be carried like a baby. She walked heavily up the stairs and tucked him in, lying next to him with her arm under his head. He snuggled close to her body and sighed.
“It’s going to be OK, Noah,” she said softly. “Maybe not anytime soon, but eventually. Julie will come back to you. Just give her time.”
“Do you want to talk about anything?”
He wanted to talk about everything, but he couldn’t. Not yet. He shook his head. She stroked his hair and hummed until they both drifted off to sleep.
Miranda made seven dozen chocolate chip cookies and took them across the street to John and his family. Noah went with her. It had been two weeks since the memorial service. John made the trip with his children to the California coast, where they had chartered a boat and scattered Jenny’s ashes as dolphins frolicked beside them.
Miranda didn’t know if anyone would eat the cookies, but she couldn’t go empty-handed. Now that she was offering sympathy, she found herself doing all the things she said she’d never do. Taking food was one. Saying she knew how someone felt was another. Yet she found herself saying it to John, and mentally kicked herself.
“I don’t mean I know exactly how you feel,” she hastily corrected herself as she stood in his kitchen. “Nobody can feel what you’re feeling right now. I lost some people I really loved too. I know how alone you feel. Come over anytime if you feel like you need to talk.”
John nodded and seemed appreciative of both the cookies and the offer.
“I wish I could bring a big, nourishing pot of chicken soup or something,” Miranda sighed. “Do you need anything? Anything that isn’t food related?”
“I wish Noah here would go talk to Julie,” he said. “She doesn’t want to talk, and I’m really worried about her. The other kids go to counseling but Julie refuses to say a word. She just sits there.”
“I’ll see if she’ll talk to me,” Noah said softly, and went to Julie’s room. She was sitting on her bed with her homework on her lap, tears tracing silent paths down both cheeks and dripping onto her lined notebook paper.
“Hey,” Noah said from the doorway. She looked up and stared at him, as though making up her mind about something.
“Hey,” she said at last. Noah felt relieved. He sat on the end of the bed.
“Are you working on math?” he asked. She nodded and wiped her cheek with the back of her hand.
“I don’t understand this at all,” she said angrily, slapping the paper. “I read it and read it and it still doesn’t make sense. I’m so stupid.”
“You’re not stupid, Julie. You’re one of the smartest people I know.”
He slid next to her and explained the process of borrowing in a way she seemed to immediately understand. She nodded, sniffed loudly, and wiped her nose on her sleeve. She worked out another problem, and looked at him with her eyebrows raised. He nodded and smiled.
Julie went back to work, her face dark but less closed. Noah felt elated, if just a little, and hope bloomed anew. Maybe Julie would be his friend again. Maybe Mama was right. He just had to be patient.
Suddenly, her head jerked up and she frowned at him.
“I don’t know if we can be friends anymore, Noah.”
The good feelings evaporated as quickly as they had stolen in.
“Why?” He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Because you remind me that we failed. Every time I look at you I remember how happy I was and it makes all the sadness even worse.”
She sprang from the bed, suddenly furious, and paced the floor.
“The fog came back; it came back and we couldn’t stop it. It came and took her anyway, and it’s not fair, and I hate it, I hate it so much—“
She sank to the floor, crying so hard she couldn’t speak anymore, and Noah wished he could speak the right words and make everything different. Death was everywhere, he knew it was, and there was nothing they could do to stop it; they had thought they were powerful but they weren’t, not really, they were just kids and kids can’t do anything about big things like death. Death did whatever it wanted.
“I’m sorry, Julie,” he said, though he knew it wasn’t enough.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she sobbed. “You’re wrong. We are powerful. We are, Noah. We made it disappear, but it knew when to come back.”
“I guess so,” he said, sitting down next to her. “Or, maybe it didn’t; maybe it was just a thing that was supposed to happen and that’s why we couldn’t stop it. Just like Mike dying. Maybe it just had to happen.”
“Mike was my mom’s boyfriend. They rescued me when Joanie and Mr. McGraw kidnapped me. He died. I liked him a lot.”
“The bad thing?” Julie whispered.
“Yeah. The bad thing.”
Julie became quiet, and leaned against Noah. He put his arm around her.
Please still be my friend, he thought. I miss you.
There was nothing for a moment and he began to despair.
How can I ignore you? she thought back, finally. You, with your big loud thoughts?
Then, she turned to him and smiled; barely, but it was a smile.
Miranda opened the door to find John standing on her stoop, fingering the buttons on his vest. He opened his mouth to speak, seemed to think better of it and shut it again.
She opened the door wider and he stepped across the threshold and stopped in the hallway, rubbing the back of his neck and looking at her with red, weary eyes. She motioned for him to take a seat on the couch and offered him a cup of coffee.
“Whiskey, if you have any,” he said softly.
“I definitely have whiskey,” she said.
She pulled the liquor from above the refrigerator, grabbed two tumblers, and took a seat across from him in the overstuffed recliner. She poured them both a drink and set one on the coffee table in front of him, the bottle next to it.
He took a swallow, then swirled the amber liquid in its glass. The air was almost unbearably still. Miranda waited, knowing there were many things that could not be rushed. Grief was one of them.
“I should have called before I came over. But you said anytime, so I decided you meant that.”
She insisted she had.
“You said you have some experience with loss, Miranda, and I surely need to talk to someone. Someone who understands. Do you mind if I ask you what happened?”
She drained her glass and poured some more, wondering how to begin. As concisely as she could, she told of Dean, and Hugh, and the circumstances of Noah’s birth. She told him of Noah’s abduction and Mike’s murder and John gave a low whistle, shaking his head and staring at her.
“And I thought I had a sad story.”
“You do,” she said. “Nobody will feel it the same as you. That’s why grief is so isolating. But yeah. Pain. I’ve had some. It helps to know you’re not alone.”
“I don’t know how to go on,” he said. “How do I do my job–take care of my kids, and remember the bills–through this horror? I just want to lay down, Miranda. I want to lay down and sleep until I can wake up next to her somewhere. Heaven, or whatever. I don’t want to be here anymore, not without her. I don’t even care that my kids need me. I don’t want to be needed. I only want her back.”
He put his head in his hands and cried great, heaving sobs. Miranda sat next to him, put her arm around his shoulders and felt tears of her own spilling over in empathetic sorrow. She handed him a box of tissues and he blew his nose loudly and wiped his eyes, breathing a long, shuddering sigh.
“I think I’ve been holding that in for weeks.”
“I remember how horrible it was, having to be strong in front of everybody.” Miranda said. “You need a friend to cry on. Someone you don’t feel self-conscious with.”
“I don’t feel self-conscious with you,” he said. “Is that you, or the whiskey?”
“I hope it’s me.” She smiled. “I hope you feel comfortable here. You’re always welcome.”
“It hurts so much more than I thought.” John said. “I was ready for her to die. I’m so grateful for the extra months we had with her. But thinking she was back, and then losing her anyway; it doesn’t make any sense. How can that happen?” He put his head in his hands again.
“You can never prepare for it,” Miranda said, softly. “I really thought it would kill me. I wished it would. But I had Noah, and he helped me.”
“The kids–they need me, I know. I feel like I have to be everything to them now.”
“Believe me, you don’t,” Miranda said. “Don’t buy that lie. They need to see you grieve. You need to show them it’s OK to be destroyed by it. It’s not weak; it’s the greatest kind of strength.”
“I don’t want them to worry about me. I want them to concentrate on their own healing.”
Miranda shook her head. “You guys have to heal together. You’re a family; you need to wade in there, get all messy with it, and let it knit you together. Otherwise, it will tear you apart. Noah and I cried a lot together. We also went through extensive counseling.”
John balled up the wet tissues and threw them into the trash can. “I’m not sure I’ll be good at that.”
“Just be patient,” she said. “Be real. And when that’s hard, there’s always whiskey.”
The corners of his mouth twitched upward, just a little.
“There will always be whiskey.”
He lifted his glass. “Here’s to…I don’t know. To not being strong.”
“To not being strong,” she agreed, and they drank.
Start here to read from the beginning…
Noah jumped from his bed, pulled the curtains back, and gazed outside. Across the street, he saw Julie standing in her bedroom, framed by her window. She waved at him, grinning broadly.
Good morning, Julie, he answered, waving back. The early morning sunlight was just creeping over the rooflines, sending long shadows across the road.
They played this game every morning, seeing who could get up first and wake the other. Sometimes he won, but most of the time it was Julie who roused him. She was a morning person. It was 6:38 a.m., according to the clock by his bed.
Mama would not be up for another hour. He peeked into her darkened bedroom and heard the soft snore that meant she was sleeping soundly. Sometimes, he heard her in the middle of a nightmare, and he would climb onto the bed next to her, shaking her hard to wake her up. She always hugged him tightly and thanked him, but she never told him what the nightmares were about. He was glad about that.
He hopped down the stairs and opened the front door for Julie. She never knocked. She never had to; Noah always knew when she was there. They went to the kitchen, taking care to avoid the tile’s grouted seams. Between them, they had good reasons not to take chances.
He got the Honeycomb, she got the milk and two Tupperware bowls, and together they sat at the worn wooden breakfast table and ate in silence.
It wasn’t polite to talk with your mouth full, and even though they could speak without opening their mouths it still felt wrong and so they didn’t. When they were done Noah took their bowls to the sink and Julie put the box away.
They stepped out the back door from the kitchen and stood on the concrete parking area. The air was already thick with humidity but there was a sweet breeze ruffling their hair and they didn’t notice the heat. Noah retrieved a large bucket of broken sidewalk chalk from under the porch stoop and they set to work.
The chalk was dusty and cool in Noah’s hand and he was filled with contentment. He drew an alien with three heads and large, spreading claws, filling in the blank expanses with sweeping blue strokes. Julie drew a bird with wings outstretched over its nest. When they were done they sat back and examined their artwork.
“Yours is better,” Noah said. It was true. The bird was brilliant. Julie cast him a sly look and suddenly the birds wings began to flap up and down. He giggled, and made his monster’s claws open and shut. The two pictures moved across the concrete like oil floating on top of water. This gave them another hour’s worth of entertainment before the sun took its toll on their fun.
“Whew. It’s getting hot.” Julie wiped her bangs out of her eyes. “Let’s fill the swimming pool.”
Noah went inside to put on his suit, and crossed the street to where Julie was standing with the green garden hose, filling the small blue pool. Her sister came out the front door and got into her car, lifting the mirror on the visor to apply a vibrant shade of lipstick. Noah thought she was very pretty in her yellow sundress, and told her so.
“Well, aren’t you sweet!” she exclaimed. “Thank you! I have to work today, isn’t that sad?” She pouted with her bright mouth as she closed the door and pulled away. Noah didn’t think she seemed very sad about it at all.
“She’s not sad,” Julie said. “She has a crush on one of the grocery boys; she’s really in love with him. She’s happy she gets to work. Plus then she doesn’t have to be around here. Nobody wants to be around here but me and Dad.” She frowned a little.
“I’m sorry, Julie.” Noah took her free hand in his and held it. He knew that sometimes there wasn’t anything else to say. She looked at him for a moment, inscrutable and dark, and then turned with one swift motion and soaked him with the hose.
For the next few hours they had more riotous fun in the 18 inches of water than should have been humanly possible, even playing a raucous—and admittedly short—game of Marco Polo. Finally, exhausted and pruney, they lay side by side in the warm water and discussed what to do with the hours that were left in the day.
“Let’s go to my Grandma and Grandpa’s house.” Noah suggested. “I know the way; I could show you Moxie. She’s my Grandma’s dog. You’d like her.”
Julie agreed that this was an excellent scheme, and went to get permission. Noah ran to his house, found Mama reading a book in the living room, and asked if they could go.
“By yourselves? Are you sure you even know the way?” Mama’s eyes were anxious. Noah rattled off the directions flawlessly, and she sat silently for a moment, deliberating.
There was an eagerness in Noah’s eyes that told her he wanted to show off his navigational abilities. She was nervous at the thought of them walking alone but she knew this was irrational; children smaller than Noah walked to school from their neighborhood. She still made the trip with him every day.
She had, in the years since Mike’s death, been told she had a well-deserved case of post-traumatic stress disorder which plagued her with bad dreams, but in waking life she felt she had gained some measure of freedom from it. Events in the past had wrecked some parts of her soul and she knew this was an opportunity to deny their hold on her.
She wanted to extend to Noah the grace that independence required. She didn’t want him to be bogged down by anything of her own that was too heavy for him to carry, and so she nodded in spite of the fear.
“Let me call Grandma and make sure she’s home.” She rose to get her phone from the bedroom and Noah was left alone with his thoughts. He knew Mama was afraid to let him go, and he was glad she said yes. Mama was brave. Really brave. Right now she was calling Grandma, and Grandma was saying that yes, she was home, and she would love to have them over for a while. She would make scones. Noah loved Grandma’s scones, especially when she put chocolate chips in them.
“Grandma says yes, you can come over,” Mama said. “She’s going to make you scones, you lucky dog.” She handed him a T-shirt and his flip flops.
“You won’t talk to any weirdos, right?” she asked as he pulled the shirt over his head. “You’ll wait for the light to show the little walking guy, right? Even if there’s not a car for a million miles. And call me when you get there?”
Julie joined him on the front porch and they walked all the way to the end of the block and turned. He saw Mama still standing there, and he waved.
“Bring me a scone!” she shouted.
He suddenly felt older, then, walking with Julie, and a small, protective wave surged up. Let’s just see any weirdos try to mess with us, he thought. Julie giggled.
“You. Beating up the weirdos,” she said, punching the air. “What about me? I bet I could beat up more weirdos than you.”
“Yeah. You probably could.” He smiled. “We could beat up weirdos together. We could be a gang.”
“A really small gang.” She laughed.
Soon they were at Grandma’s door and she threw it open with exclamations of admiration that they made the trip alone. Noah submitted to kisses and Julie had her hand shaken with exaggerated solemnity by Grandpa. For the next two hours, Grandma peppered them with questions as they ate scones and played with her chiweenie, Moxie. Julie laid on the floor and giggled madly as the dog snuffled her ears.
“She’s a really great dog,” she said wistfully. “I miss our dog. He was really great too. Dad just thought things were too stressful to keep him, and I guess he was right. But I really wish we could have brought him.”
“I’m sorry, honey. Maybe someday you’ll have another great dog.”
“I hope so. I’d like to have a German Shepherd. I really like those.”
“A German Shepherd would eat you in one bite, wouldn’t it, Moxie? Wouldn’t it, huh? Huh? Huh?” Noah laughed as Moxie got more and more excited as he spoke, bending almost in half as she wiggled for him.
“I guess we better head back now,” Noah said. “Mama sounded really happy when I called but she’ll feel better when I get back.”
“You’re such a wise boy, Noah,” Grandpa said with a wink. “Sometimes you seem much older than nine.”
After more hugs and kisses they left, Noah swinging a bag with scones inside for Mama. Julie had her own bag, too.
“I never had a scone before,’ she said. “They sure were good.”
“Look at the kitty,” Noah said, pointing across the street. A small tabby trotted along the gutter. It looked up as Noah made kissing noises through his teeth, skittering away as they neared.
“It’s afraid of us,” Julie said, and held out her arm for him to stop, hunkering down to make herself less threatening and calling kittykittykitty in a soft voice.
The cat stopped and turned to look at her. It slowly slunk closer, pausing before darting halfway across the road.
An enormous blue Dodge truck with a pair of metal testicles dangling from the back hitch squealed around the corner and came hurtling down the road.
Slow down, slow down, slow down, Noah thought.
“Slow down!” he screamed over the roar of the engine, hopping up and down frantically, hoping to alert the driver. The engine sputtered and died, but roared back to life almost as quickly, and the truck lurched forward again. The cat darted backwards and then abruptly changed direction, finally crouching immobile on the concrete, where the right front tire hit it with a sickening thud.
Horrified, Noah and Julie watched the truck fly heedlessly by and disappear over a hill. They stood, gazing at the small, still form in the gutter on the other side of the road.
Julie cried, springing forward with Noah close behind her. Breathlessly, they leaned over the crumpled form. It gasped brokenly; blood bubbled from its nostrils as its eyes rolled white in its head.
“The poor, poor thing,” Julie said. She was near tears and reached out for Noah’s hand, squeezing it tightly. He felt as though the creature had entered his own head and made its fear and pain his own; he saw himself and Julie bent over it, figures enormous and threatening in its panicked state.
“Stupid truck!” Julie screamed in the direction it had gone. “Stupid driver! Stupid…asshole!”
“We’re scaring it,” Noah said. “Maybe we should leave it alone.”
“Leave it alone?” she cried. “Noah, we have to do something.”
“It’s gonna die, Julie. Look, it’s dying right now.”
The cat shuddered violently with each breath, its eyes clamped shut, its front paws paddling in the air as though trying to get away. Noah saw a dark mist settling on it, cold and familiar, and reflexively he waved his hand at it, trying to brush it away. Julie stared at him.
“You see it too?” she whispered.
Tears were pouring down her face as she reached out and gently touched the creature. Noah felt the cat’s fear ebb a little. He stroked its fur, sorrow welling up inside of him.
The black, vaporous cloud agitated briefly and rose off the animal, swirling in the air before them. They moved their hands away and it settled once more onto the cat’s broken body. They stared at one another and together put their hands on it again. Again, the cloud rose and swirled, seeming to coagulate and dissipate by turns.
Beneath their hands the animal wheezed and coughed. Its eyes opened and it looked at them. The back legs, which had been limp and unmoving, began to twitch.
“Noah…” Julie said, so soft he hardly heard her.
“Close your eyes,” he said. “Close your eyes, Julie, and think about it. Think about it all better.”
They shut their eyes, hands still stroking the matted fur, and thought hard. Julie’s thoughts joined Noah’s and they saw the cat running, leaping, pouncing on bugs in the yard, and lounging in the sun. They thought live and breathe and please don’t die. They felt movement beneath their palms and opened their eyes, not daring to believe what might be happening.
The cat rolled once, and sat up, rubbing its head on their hands, moving back and forth as though nothing had happened, meowing and lashing its tail before sitting down to calmly lick its rumpled fur. The two children gazed at each other, mouths hanging open.
The black mist was gone.
“Please, Noah. Please. We’ve got to try. You’ve got to help me!”
Noah suddenly felt as though he was moving even though he was sitting still. He closed his eyes and felt the movement of the earth as it hurtled through space, felt time as it carried him along, and all his cells growing older in his body.
He felt Julie’s desperation and the burden of her request bearing down upon him like the Dodge bore down upon the cat just a few days before.
He didn’t want to help. He didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to go into the room of death and try to dispel the black cloud that hung so thickly over Julie’s mama. It wasn’t that he didn’t think it would work. It was because he knew it would.
“Noah, please…” Her eyes were dripping and her face was growing hard and angry. He knew things she couldn’t understand; that there were things they shouldn’t mess with, things that were better left alone. And if it worked for Julie’s mama, what would it mean for his own, who grieved for something that maybe he could have fixed if only he had known?
But I was just so little then, he told himself, feeling at least half a million years old. I didn’t know anything. Mama would understand that. Mama understands better than anybody.
“If you don’t help me, we can’t be friends anymore.”
Julie’s voice and face were very hard now, and he knew she was hearing all the wrong things in his mind. He was blocking her and it made his head hurt but he didn’t want her there, not right now, not in those places, not ever.
“I can’t do it alone. It doesn’t work without you. I already tried. I need you.”
“I’ll help you,” he said softly.
Hand in hand, they entered the dim living room where Jenny slept. Her grandma dozed in the La-Z-Boy next to the bed. The air was thick with the acrid smell of medication and bleach.
Noah’s eyes were wide open, pupils round and glassy in the darkness. He saw Jenny’s tousled hair on the pillow and her bony hand that lay on the blanket, crocheted in brown and blue hues that reminded him of the beach. He knew that it was made by Julie’s Great-Aunt Emily, who was 73 and who prayed every day for them; she didn’t just say it, she did it. He saw the stitches and knew there were 28,462 of them, every one counted and imbued with love, miles and miles of yarn woven into a tangible display of concern.
Mostly, however, he saw the black cloud.
It hung just over Julie’s mama, swirling and coiling like smoke, so thick he almost couldn’t see Julie’s sleeping grandmother on the other side of the bed. It was oppressive and malevolent and it waited, growing and gathering strength every day, until it could drop over Jenny and suck the last bit of breath from her body.
Noah realized he was holding his own breath, as though the black cloud might descend upon him instead and lift him from the floor, carry him into the sky and take him away forever.
Be brave, Noah, Julie said, speechlessly, in the stillness of the room.
He was brave. He was brave like Mama. Julie pulled him forward and they stood beside her mother’s head. She put her hand gently on the dying woman’s chest and leaned forward to kiss her hollow cheek. Jenny’s eyes fluttered open and she smiled when she saw them. Her green eyes were beautiful in the darkness and Noah felt a trembling in his chest when they fixed upon him.
“Hello,” she breathed. It was faint, imperceptible in any other room. The quiet was so dense it enveloped them.
“Hi, Mom,” Julie whispered. “This is my friend Noah. He wanted to meet you.”
Jenny closed her eyes again but the smile remained. “Nice to…meet you.”
Noah placed his free hand on Jenny’s left shoulder, shuddering at the skeletal feel of it beneath the sheet. Julie closed her eyes and Noah did, as well, stealing softly into her mind to see her memories.
A bright summer day, a picnic, and Peanut running around, barking his head off, chasing a Frisbee. Laughter. Jenny sitting on the blanket with John’s head in her lap, stroking his hair as she listened to Jane talk about school that week. Her hair is blond and her cheeks are glowing.
Christmas. Presents everywhere; wrapping paper littering the floor. Jenny in the kitchen, making Christmas dinner as she sips wine and sings loudly along with the carols playing on the stereo, stopping to kiss John and clink glasses and kiss again.
Julie’s birthday. Her mom placing a paper crown on her head, bedecked with streamers and glitter and a large number 5 in bright green. An enormous pink cake shaped like a castle with five turrets, Jenny taking a bow after bringing it out, explaining to her parents just how she made it, how long it took, but how worthwhile it was to make Julie happy.
Live, live, live, Julie said, chanting inside her head. Live, live, live!
Noah took up the mantra as well, and together their voices joined in his mind. He peeked from under his lids and saw the black vapor roiling like a thunderhead about to drop lightening upon the earth. He glanced at Julie and saw that she was watching, too, and she squeezed his hand so tight he thought she might break his fingers.
Live, live, live!
Noah’s head hurt and he wasn’t sure how long they had been standing there when Julie’s grandmother gave a sudden jerk in her chair and sat up with a grunt.
“What are you doing?” she whispered. “What do you need? You shouldn’t be in here; your mother is trying to rest. Did you need something?”
Julie said no, they didn’t need anything. She just wanted to see her mom, and let her meet Noah. Her grandmother softened.
“Your mom is asleep; do you want me to call you when she wakes up? Maybe you can talk to her then.”
Julie nodded and they left the house. They stepped through the front door and into the blinding sunlight.
Neither of them spoke. From all around them the sound of cicadas filled the air and the heat bore down on them. It seemed as though nothing had happened.
“Do you think it helped?” he asked softly.
“My mom is going to live,” Julie said simply. “I think we’ll have to do it more than once, though.”
Although Jenny hadn’t risen from the bed and stood fully fleshed before them, he felt certain that something had altered in Jenny’s chemistry as they stood there, hands linked, pouring their power into her. The black sea had boiled and although it had not vanished, it was scattered and less focused by the time they were done. They had scrambled its brains and left it confused. He felt elated and terrified at the same time.
“We’ll do it again tomorrow. I’ll tell you when,” Julie said.
They went back the next day, and the next, and six more times after that. The last time the mist seemed as inconsequential as the tendrils from a recently extinguished match. Soon, even they were gone.
It was a miracle. Everyone, from doctors to the Miller’s mailman, said it must be.
Jenny—a shriveled husk in the final stages of terminal brain cancer—recovered.
It was August, and the drought-prone Oklahoma summer sucked the life out of everything. The Bermuda grass lawns were shriveled and brown, and the trees went into early dormancy, shedding their leaves prematurely to conserve what little energy they had left.
The air pressed heavy all around and filled everyone’s lungs with its thick, suffocating weight. Nothing seemed to thrive, and people moved at half-speed.
Inside the Miller household, however, life abounded.
The hospital bed was gone. The morphine pump was carried out amidst a cacophony of cheers. Home health care aides with smiles big as canoes removed the detritus of the death process and wished Jenny well as they left.
She stood in the living room, pale but radiant, surrounded by people there for a party to celebrate her recovery. Her children hung close to her like satellites orbiting the sun, and her health was toasted again and again by relatives and friends.
Julie stood at her side, arms around her mother’s waist. Noah hung back with Mama, who was thoroughly delighted. The team of oncologists who told her to get her affairs in order less than a year earlier were there, delighted to have been proven wrong.
And then there was John.
He was almost radiant. He stood beside his wife, hand in hers, and could not stop looking at her, drinking her in from head to toe. He beamed. He kissed her forehead, her lips, her cheek, her palm.
When she first looked better he told himself it was a trick of the light. When the faintest blush of color appeared on her cheeks he wept at his vain imagination.
But the day she opened her eyes and told him she was hungry, he had a hard time stamping down the hope that welled up. Watching her drink an entire milkshake, he asked himself if it could be true; was he witnessing a recovery?
The morphine pump chugged less often. The flesh returned to her body. And when he wheeled her into the oncology center for MRIs, they had both walked out with impossible ringing in their ears.
No tumors remained. There was no trace of cancerous cells.
John wondered if he would wake up from this most pleasant dream. The valley of the shadow of death was too deep a place to be forgotten so quickly, and he wondered if they were treading on the edge of a vast canyon, into which the slightest wind might cause them to tumble. He could not know the future.
He didn’t want to know. But while he was here on the precipice, he danced. Oh, how he danced. He cartwheeled and jigged in the very depths of his heart.
For Julie, victory was complete. She and Noah had dispelled the demons and scattered the specter. Her mother belonged to her again; she was available to help and play and scold and teach, and nothing was sweeter to her ears than the voice that asked her if she wanted waffles or pancakes for breakfast.
Julie had a new haircut, too; Jenny took one look at the choppy boy cut John had attempted and took her straight to the salon to shape it into a pixie.
Noah was stunned by the transformation. She stood, hugging Jenny’s arm and smiling, all the dark storms in her eyes replaced by clear white light.
Noah was happy, too. He felt he had done a good thing, a wonderful thing, an amazing thing, but–not necessarily the right thing. What did that matter in the end? He wasn’t even sure what right meant anymore.
What could be wrong about this, after all? All this joy, all this celebration that he and Julie were responsible for. Still, he was uneasy. He hadn’t told Julie just a week earlier he found the tabby’s corpse in his grandparent’s bushes, stiff and cold, its spirit long gone. He knew what it meant, but he pushed it down hard and refused to look it full in the face.
He smiled, but his heart was full of questions.
Previous installment here with links to the past chapters.
Winter melted into spring, and on one bright April morning Noah awoke and found Mama packing a picnic lunch.
“Are we going to the zoo?” he asked.
“Yes!” she said, surprised. “How did you know?”
“Boy, you are going to get harder and harder to surprise, aren’t you?” she asked. “Anyway, eat some breakfast. Mike will be here soon and we’ll all go laugh at the monkeys.”
He hopped into a chair and ate his waffles with plenty of syrup. Mike walked in and kissed Mama and asked Noah if he was ready.
“Almost!” Noah glugged his milk and jumped down again. “I just gotta wash my face off now.”
“What?” Mike exclaimed. “If you wash your face off then how will you see? Or smell? Or eat anything?”
Noah giggled and left the room, returning with his clothes changed and his shoes on. He had new shoes with real laces now because Mama said he was getting too old for Velcro. He carefully tied them into double knots and stood proudly.
“Way to go, buddy.” Mike said. “I don’t think I learned that until I was at least twenty. Good job!” He high-fived Noah and Noah beamed.
The Tulsa Zoo was crowded with families, and Noah paused on the bridge to peer over the railing at the giant catfish turning slow circles in the stream below, waiting for crumbs of any kind to rain into the water. Red eared sliders paddled above them, and an occasional snapping turtle rose from the depths to poke around the surface for a treat, as well.
“Can I have a peanut butter cracker to feed them, Mama?” he pleaded.
She fished around in her bag for the crackers and handed him one. He broke off a piece and sent it sailing downward, where it hit the water with a soft plunk. In an instant a large fishy mouth broke the surface and sucked it in. Noah broke off another piece, trying to aim at a small turtle swimming around the periphery. It landed directly in front of it but before it could move a larger turtle snatched it away.
“Darn it,” Noah muttered. He looked at the last piece in his hand, and ate it instead. Mike laughed.
“Survival of the fittest, huh, Noah?” he asked. “Poor little turtle doesn’t have much of a chance, does he? But don’t worry, he’ll be all right. He’ll be bigger and bullying all the little turtles himself soon enough.”
They entered the zoo and caught a ride on the train to the back of the property. The train was small but fast, and Noah enjoyed the wind on his face and the thrill of scooting through the zoo’s dark tunnel while the conductor rang his bell.
As they got off the train Noah was delighted to see that the lions were pacing in their exhibit. Usually, they were asleep. They jumped at one another, feeling frisky in the spring air, and pounced at one another like kittens.
“That’s awesome, isn’t it?” Miranda asked Noah. “Aren’t you glad you’re not in there with them?”
He nodded, watching the big cats, his eyes shining.
“Maybe they’ll start roaring,” he said. “I bet it’s really loud.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the male lion turned and opened his mouth, emitting a deafening roar. The two females joined in and the sound reverberated off the rocks of the enclosure, making the hair rise on the back of Noah’s neck.
“Wow!” Mike said. “That was weird.” He looked down at Noah and smiled. “Guess they really like you, buddy.”
Mama stared at him and he looked at her with wide eyes.
At the playground Mike pushed him on the swing, and they had their picnic lunch, stretching out on the grass and gazing up at the blue sky. Large, billowy white clouds dotted the expanse, and Mike pointed to one that looked like a dragon.
“There’s fire coming out of its open mouth just there, see?”
Noah nodded. It did look like a dragon, except for its bare, wingless back. Noah had a sudden thought and frowned slightly, concentrating. Imperceptibly at first and then with increasing speed, a lump formed and boiled on the back of the cloud dragon and slowly, as though driven by nothing more than the capricious wind, a pair of amorphous wings sprouted from the form and spread over it.
“Look.” Noah said, pointing. “Now it has wings!”
“Why, it sure does,” Mike said. “The cloud gods must have heard me.”
Noah turned his head to find Mama staring at him again, and he giggled.
After the picnic they found the monkeys and Noah laughed until his sides ached as he watched them chase one another, shrieking, pulling tails and picking fights as they swung from the vines in their enclosure.
“Says here these are Diana Monkeys,” Mike said, reading the placard. “They come from West Africa, and they eat fruit and insects.”
“Can we take that baby home?” Noah asked Mama, pointing at the smallest and most energetic of the group. It was swinging by its long tail and tormenting a much larger female. “Look how cute it is.”
“One monkey is enough.” She bent to tickle him and he shrieked as well, causing the small black primates to halt their shenanigans and stare through the glass at them.
“Look, they think you’re weird,” Noah said.
“I’m weird? You’re weird,” she countered.
“You’re both weird,” Mike said, backing away. “I’m getting out of here. Don’t want anyone to think I’m with you weirdoes.”
They left the primate building and went on to the children’s zoo, the rain forest, and the desert exhibit. As they neared the entrance Noah looked hopefully at the gift shop and tugged at Mama’s hand.
“Just one thing,” she said. “Ten dollars, tops. Can you find something for just ten dollars?”
He nodded eagerly, and they entered the cool building. Loaded from top to bottom with games, stuffed animals, and puzzles, Noah began to hunt for the perfect toy. He examined everything from memory games to giant sunglasses but when he came to a large stuffed Diana monkey, his eyes grew wide. He looked for the price tag. Fifteen dollars. Sighing, he returned it to its place on the shelf.
“Not so fast, buddy,” Mike smiled, taking it back down. “Your Mama didn’t say how much I was contributing,” He glanced at the tag. “I think I’d like to donate five dollars to your cause. And ten plus five makes–wait a minute–I can do this–”
“Fifteen dollars!” Noah shouted, hugging the stuffed creature to his chest. Beaming, he went to find Mama and together they paid and left.
Noah’s feet hurt from walking but he was suffused with contentment. Buckled into his car seat and clutching the monkey, he went over the events of the day and thought there couldn’t be anything better for Mama than Mike. He was like a vitamin that Mama took that made her cheeks glow and her mouth smile like he had never seen before.
He still felt a vague uneasiness creep into his brain when he thought about Mike very hard, but he pushed it far, far down inside until he didn’t feel it anymore. Watching the clouds outside his window, he concentrated hard and a small wisp of condensation formed itself into a monkey with a long tail, sailing alongside their car. He smiled and went to sleep.
Noah turned five at the end of May, and his party was a huge success. Miranda used every bit of her creative powers and managed to create a monkey cake that Noah couldn’t begin to love enough. He received a scooter and helmet from Grandma and Grandpa, and a sandbox from Miranda and Mike. He got his own RC car from his cousins, and his cup of joy overflowed.
They celebrated all afternoon until the party finally broke up and everyone said their goodbyes, kissing the birthday boy and promising to see him soon.
Miranda sat on the front porch, exhausted but content, and watched Noah ride his new scooter up and down the sidewalk. Mike went to the liquor store for a well-deserved six pack, and he promised to bring Miranda a bottle of wine to give the day a proper send-off. As she sat and watched her boy, she was filled with deliriously good thoughts.
“Mama, can I draw with chalk?” Noah called from the sidewalk, interrupting her reverie.
“Sure honey. Stay right there and I’ll go get it.”
He nodded and got off the scooter, unstrapped his helmet and sat on the first step of the porch.
Miranda went inside, stopping for a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the dark house. Where had she put that chalk, anyway? She went to the kitchen and rummaged through a few drawers. She went to the back porch to see if she had left it on the concrete stoop. Nothing. As she stood at the back door, puzzling, she heard a sudden squeal of tires and jumped a little. Stupid neighborhood kids. She went upstairs to see if the chalk was in Noah’s room.
“Noah!” She called, coming back down.
Thinking of the squealing tires with belated alarm, she hurried back through the house, meeting Mike at the front door. He was holding a six-pack of pale ale and a bottle of Shiraz.
“Where’s Noah? Is he out there?” she asked, pushing past him.
“I didn’t see him. I figured he was in here with you.”
Miranda’s heart lurched and she stepped onto the front porch. Noah’s helmet lay on the sidewalk. He was nowhere in sight.
She shouted his name, trying to keep her voice natural. She shouted it again. Maybe he’d gone to the back yard. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe she just hadn’t heard him come in. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
She ran through the house with Mike, calling for Noah. The dread was now all-encompassing, a ceaseless rhythm of terror in her head and heart. Her breath came fast and she was fighting tears as she looked at Mike wide-eyed.
“Don’t worry, babe,” he said, worry everywhere on his face. “Let’s look outside.”
They spread out across the yard and then the streets, shouting Noah’s name. Hearing it echo across the neighborhood as the minutes ticked by made Miranda’s blood grow cold in her veins; her boy was really, truly gone.
The tears would not be restrained then, and they came hot and hard. There would be no more scarcely-contained calm; she began to truly scream for Noah when a sudden horrific thought filled her mind. In an instant she was running as hard as she could through the yard, through the chain link gate and down to the drainage ditch, swollen with the runoff of spring storms and moving swiftly into a dark tunnel.
“Noah!” she screamed again, wading in up to her ankles and gasping at the cold. The water reached her knees and nearly knocked her off her feet. Mike appeared over the rise and ran down as well, joining her in the water.
“You can’t just dive in, Miranda; you’re going to drown!”
He reached for her but she pushed him away. She tried to run towards the tunnel but fell to her knees, cold water soaking her up to her neck. Mike grabbed her and brought her to her feet, trying to haul her to the bank.
“He’s gone!” she screamed, struggling with him and pounding on his chest. “Let me go! He’s dead! He’s dead! He’s dead!”
The words would not stop coming; she could not stop saying the awful thought that swirled in her head.
“He is not dead. Miranda; we need to call the police.” He took her by the shoulders and forced her to look at him. “Miranda, please don’t say it, you don’t know that. Please baby, let’s get some help.”
Choking on her sobs, she allowed herself to be pulled from the ditch, allowed herself to hang onto Mike’s emphatic words. She shook violently with cold and fear, and they went back to the house where Mike called 911 and Miranda called everyone she could think of.
Her parents came as fast as they could, and the police arrived along with a team of men to search the drainage ditch. Nothing was happening fast enough. Time itself stretched and warped in the sunny spring air and seemed to taunt Miranda by moving slower than ever. The whole family stood on the pinpoint of dread.
Miranda sat, wrapped in two blankets, still shaking. Sobs rose in her throat but she choked them down, forcing herself to remain calm. Hysteria will not help find Noah. Hysteria will not help–She said the words to herself over and over.
“Has the child ever wandered off in the past?” Detective Jeff Dunhy asked.
He was a kind man but all business, betraying no emotion in the questions although he had two children of his own at home, he told Miranda. She wondered if he tried not to be haunted by the things he saw in his job. She wondered if he was afraid for them, afraid that it was indeed too late, but he would never say such a thing.
“What was the child wearing?”
“Blue corduroy pants,” Miranda answered, voice trembling. “Green shirt with ‘I’m the birthday boy’ written on it in black letters. Today was his birthday.” Tears dripped from her eyes in spite of her best efforts to control them.
“That’s a really good, bright outfit.” the detective said. “Hard for a kid to hide in an outfit like that.”
One of the searchers came trotting up. “Nothing in the storm drain, sir,” he said, his rubber wetsuit dripping onto the Bermuda grass. A cumulative breath of relief was exhaled by everyone at once.
Miranda’s mother wept. “Thank God.”
Miranda closed her eyes and put her face in her hands, overwhelmed with emotion. Fear still gnawed in the pit of her stomach and waves of nausea threatened to overwhelm her at any moment.
“Have you noticed any suspicious people in the neighborhood recently?” the detective asked Mike.
“All quiet around here. This is a quiet neighborhood,” he responded. “You’ve never had any trouble, right baby?” She nodded her head in agreement.
“You know all your neighbors well?”
“Not really,” she said softly. “I mean, most of them are renters like me, We just smile and wave at each other at the most. They always seem decent; lots of people with kids of their own, you know?”
“My officers and I are going to go down the street and ask every single one of them some very specific questions and see if we come up with anything. I’m going to need you to think really hard right now, Miranda. I know it’s difficult to concentrate, but you’ve got to try, for your little boy’s sake. Can you think of anybody—anybody at all—who might want to take Noah?”
Miranda thought hard and shook her head. Everyone loved Noah. Everyone.
“Anybody who wants to get back at you for something you’ve done? Somebody with a grudge?”
There was Hugh, of course, but he was in jail. Again she shook her head.
“Anybody at all who’s been acting strangely?”
And just like that, it exploded like a mushroom cloud over her head, so forceful it brought her to her feet.
Noah knew he should have run when he saw her. When he saw her coming towards him on the driveway, calling his name after Mama went into the house, he turned to talk to her, even though his guts told him to run inside. She said she had a birthday present for him, and Mama wouldn’t mind if she gave him a birthday present, would she? Noah thought she would, but before he could decide what to do, Joanie’s hand was on him.
She grabbed him hard around the arm with her big hand and he tried to tell her to let him go because she was hurting him. Her hand was like a claw with long shiny pink fingernails and she clapped a rag over his mouth, wet with something stinky and horrible, and the whole world went black, just like that.
Now he didn’t know where he was. His head hurt, his mouth was dry, and his hands were tied behind his back at the wrists. He was sitting on a chair in the dark. He wasn’t afraid of the dark, not really, but he was very afraid of what was going to happen next. He knew he had been kidnapped which was what they called it on TV and sometimes abducted which was a word that meant the same thing. He never really knew why people did the kidnapping or abducting because Mama always snapped off the TV during those programs.
He thought of Mama now and how upset she must be. He wondered if she was crying. He wished she would come through the door now and scoop him up and take him home. He tried not to cry but it didn’t work. The tears dripped onto his pants and his nose ran and he couldn’t wipe it. This upset him and he wormed around in the chair until he could bring his shoulder up and wipe it on that. It was better than nothing.
There was a noise from somewhere and a door opened. A bright shaft of sunlight pierced the inky blackness and he squinted, eyes unable to adjust quickly enough to see anything. Just as quickly the door shut again and he waited. He knew someone had come in but he didn’t know who, he could only hear deep, heavy breathing as though coming from someone or something very large and menacing.
He pushed a little with his mind.
“Mr. McGraw?” he asked, his voice sounding infinitely small in the dark room. No one responded, and the silence scared him more than anything. Mr. McGraw was here, but he was different from the jolly, friendly man he remembered. Something about the numbers Noah gave him made him crazy and Noah could feel his mind; it was like a dead thing all crawling with bugs.
“Mr. McGraw?” he asked again, hoping for an answer.
“Yes, Noah. It’s me,” a voice said slowly. “How did you know it was me?”
“I just…I just knew.”
“That’s right. You just knew.”
Mr. McGraw sounded triumphant, and with a click he turned on an excruciatingly bright flashlight and shone it in Noah’s face, blinding him.
“Ouch. Please, Mr. McGraw. I can’t see.”
“Oops, sorry.” Mr. McGraw flipped the flashlight upward, giggling a little.
“You just knew because you know things, don’t you, Noah? Just like you knew my winning lottery numbers.”
“I guess so.”
“You do. I know you do.”
Mr. McGraw was breathless and practically buzzing with excitement. Noah wanted desperately to believe that part of him was still the kindly man he knew before. He thought that if he was a good boy and helped him, then maybe the good Mr. McGraw would let him go.
“You want me to help you?”
“I do, little man. I do.” Mr. McGraw’s voice was smiling. “I want you to help me pick some horse names, just a few horses that are going to run in a race, that’s all. Just help me pick the ones that are going to win, and all this will be over.”
“And then I can go home?”
“Of course. Then you can go home.”
Noah wasn’t sure. Mr. McGraw didn’t know what he was going to do; he was going to let Joanie decide. He was pushing and pushing on Mr. McGraw’s bug-infested mind with all of his might now because he knew Mama wouldn’t mind; it wasn’t rude to look into the heads of people who kidnapped you, only normal people. He knew she would want him to push his way into Mr. McGraw’s mind, but there was just a blank there. Mr. McGraw didn’t know what he was going to do with him; he was only full of right now.
“Can you untie me? Can I have a drink?” Noah asked. His hands were going to sleep and the ropes itched and he was close to tears again. Mr. McGraw didn’t seem to hear him. He only stared at Noah greedily.
“I’m going to start with something easy,” he said. “Just a little test to make sure Joanie didn’t hurt your magic brain with that chloroform.”
Mr. McGraw left the room and returned with some papers, forgoing the flashlight and flipping the light on as he came in. Noah squinted at the sudden brightness, glancing around to take in his surroundings. The room was entirely pink and wallpapered in an old-fashioned flowery print. Dolls decorated almost every surface. Mr. McGraw sat in front of Noah on a chair and held up the papers. They were print outs from the computer, lots of forms and pictures of horses. The forms had a bunch of words on them.
“All these horses here are about to run a race. Isn’t that fun?” He giggled again. It was not a comforting sound. “One of them is going to win. You just tell me which horse is going to come in first. Just one horse that you feel like is going to win the race, OK?”
Mr. McGraw looked at him expectantly.
“I can’t read, Mr. McGraw.”
“What do you mean you can’t read?”
He looked at him blankly for a moment and then burst into laughter so loud it seemed to shake the walls of the small room. Noah did not know why this was so funny, and the laughter did not make him feel better. It was crazy laughter, which went with his crazy brain.
“Of course you can’t read!” Mr. McGraw exclaimed, wheezing and holding his ponderous stomach as the pendulous fat around his neck jiggled. “You’re only, what? Three?”
“I’m five. Today was my birthday.”
Suddenly, he seemed impatient. “I will read you each name carefully and you tell me which horse will win, you hear?”
“Top Gun.” No.
“Cash Rocket.” No.
“Special Man.” Noah shook his head.
“Raging Thunder.” No. Maybe. No. Pretty sure no.
Noah closed his eyes. He saw the race, heard the thundering hooves and smelled the dirt of the track and the sweat of the horses. He nodded. Maybe, yes.
“Shine Time?” Mr. McGraw repeated.
Yes. Noah nodded again. He wasn’t sure, but he just wanted Mr. McGraw to leave him alone. His breath smelled like hot dogs and cheese sauce.
Mr. McGraw let out a whoop and headed for the door. Through the doorway Noah could see him sit at a computer and hit lots of keys. He was fast. Noah fidgeted in his chair and looked around the room again. It was a small bedroom with one bed decorated all in pink ruffles that reminded Noah of his cousin Tori’s last birthday cake.
The walls were papered with shiny cabbage roses and the window wore heavy pink drapes embellished with lace. A dark comforter was nailed over the opening behind the curtains. On the bed sat at least fourteen porcelain dolls bedecked in frilly dresses, with more sitting on a large bookshelf next to the door, all staring at him with cold china blue eyes. Noah wished Mr. McGraw would turn the lights off again.
“Mr. McGraw?” he called through the doorway. “Mr. McGraw, the rope is really hurting…”
“Hold on, I’m busy.” he said. “We’ll get you fixed up in no time.”
Noah wasn’t sure if he was talking to him or the computer screen.
Joanie appeared behind Mr. McGraw. She put her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek, leaving a very bright lipstick mark on his sizeable jowl.
“What’s Eddie going to win this time, hmm?” she cooed.
Her voice made Noah want to throw up. She didn’t even care about Mr. McGraw, Noah could see that without even pushing. She wanted his money. Mr. McGraw. You are stupid, he thought.
It made him feel a little bit better to talk to them like that in his mind, so he did it some more.
Mr. McGraw. You are really dumb. Weirdo. Just wait til Mike gets here; he’ll beat you both up. He wasn’t actually sure if it would be OK for Mike to beat up a lady, but he thought maybe he could just punch her once and knock her out.
“Just one race first, I told him,” he heard Mr. McGraw saying to Joanie softly. “I only bet a hundred on this one. Odds are three to one so it should pay out pretty good if the kid is right. And if he is, you and I are going to have the world on a string, baby.”
Joanie made a purring noise and sat on Mr. McGraw’s enormous thigh, kissing him over and over again. Mr. McGraw was running his hands over her butt and under her sweater when she looked towards the open door.
“Look at him, the little letch,” Joanie said with a nasty smile. “Mind your own business, kid.”
She walked over and kicked the door shut, leaving Noah with only the dolls for company.
They knocked on every door in the neighborhood and turned up nothing suspicious, so the detective questioned Miranda and Mike again and they gave all the same answers.
She had gone inside for a few minutes. She didn’t know how many, exactly. She had heard the squealing of tires. Mike had come in. No, Mike had not seen anything suspicious. Detective Dunhy wrote everything down in his notepad again and left, promising to call when anything turned up.
Miranda turned her fear inward and raged at herself for leaving Noah alone on the front step. She raged at herself for being the worst parent on the planet, for having no sense. She raged and wept and Mike stood and tried to talk to her, tried to reason but got nowhere; grief had washed her sanity out to sea.
Exhausted, laying numbly in Mike’s arms on the couch, Miranda jumped when the doorbell rang, and raced everyone in the house to the front door. Detective Dunhy stood in the evening light, looking grim.
“Stopped at Edward McGraw’s house but he was either not answering or not at home,” he said. “We’ll check back later, of course, but I was wondering if you have any other ideas. We ran a background check and it came up with nothing; he’s clean. It’ll be hard to get a search warrant unless you can remember anything more incriminating than his odd behavior.”
Miranda had nothing. His behavior at work was irritating and disturbing but not illegal, and he had not come to her home again.
“Do you know where he might be? Visiting family, maybe?”
Mr. McGraw was an only child and a lonely man, Miranda knew for certain. His parents had died within six months of one another two years ago; she remembered him attending their funerals. She shook her head.
“Anyone else we might ask?”
“There’s Joanie,” Miranda said. “I think they might have started dating in the last few months. Anyway, they act really weird around each other, secretive.”
The detective scribbled down Joanie’s full name, and left.
Miranda’s mind spun wearily. Could Joanie have something to do with this? Was Joanie capable of inflicting this kind of pain on her? Yes, they had a mutual loathing for one another, but was she a kidnapper? It hardly seemed proportionate payback for all the years of numbers slipped to Miranda over the counter at work. Were they in this together, she and Mr. McGraw?
If they really were dating, then Mr. McGraw must have convinced her of Noah’s power. He was the goose who laid the golden egg, and that meant cash to Edward and Joanie, who could not wait to scramble up those eggs into a million dollar omelet.
Where are you, sweetheart? Miranda thought. Where are you? Please tell me you’re all right.
Would the cops find Noah easily, or were he and his kidnappers out of the city by now? Long gone? They could be out of the country by now.
The thought of her son in the middle of a hostage situation was unbearable. She paced the floor although her legs felt heavy and wooden.
“Miranda,” Mike pleaded. “Come sit down, baby. Please? Take a rest for a minute. The police are doing everything they can.”
She positioned herself beside him on the couch, cell phone at the ready. He stroked her hair and she wearily closed her eyes. Her mother, who looked just as haggard, brought her a cup of chamomile tea and she drank it even though she hated tea but she hated seeing her mother worry more. As she drained the last of the cup her head felt unbearably heavy and she laid it down on Mike’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, we’ll get him back,” he whispered in her ear. “You listen to me–we’re getting him back.”
“We’re getting him back,” she murmured and fell fast asleep.
Again, the dream in the rain. Again, the great looming presence that strangled her breath in her throat. This time there was no Dean in his Camaro, though. This time the shape just kept advancing, rain pelting off its surface. She beat it with her umbrella and screamed, but her mouth filled with water and she choked as the shape caught her around the throat and lifted her off the ground.
Mama. Noah’s voice said. Mama, help. They took me.
Then she was no longer in the rain, no longer being held by the throat by the shapeless mass, but standing completely dry in a bedroom that could have come from her grandparents’ house. It was replete with lace and smelled damp and slightly moldy. The wallpaper was straight from the 1940’s with large cabbage roses and black and white photos of long dead ancestors on the walls. The bed was covered with more dolls than she could count. Noah stood at her side, his mouth stitched shut with the heavy twine but staring up at her as though trying desperately to say something.
Come get me, Mama. I miss you.
She jerked awake. She was alone on the couch and there was a faint glimmer of light through the window. From the kitchen she heard murmurs of conversation. She was damp with sweat and her heart was again pounding but she knew—absolutely knew—that Noah was with Mr. McGraw, somewhere. She knew Joanie was in on it. Noah said they and what else could that mean?
Rage welled inside her and she leapt from the couch. She found her father and Mike sitting at the kitchen island. Mike held out his arms.
“I know it was Mr. McGraw and Joanie,” she announced. “I know it. I had a dream–Noah talked to me. They’re holding him in a bedroom somewhere…I saw the bedroom, it was an old lady’s bedroom. We’ve got to call the police, we’ve got to tell them.”
“Sugar, wait,” her father said. “What are we going to tell them? You had a dream?”
“We’ve got to try!” she yelled, bringing her fist down on the counter with a crash. “What do you expect me to do, Dad? Just sit here and wait for them to find his corpse? Do you think he’s going to be found by just sitting around and talking? How can you just sit and do nothing?”
Tears of frustration spilled from her eyes.
“The police are trying to locate Mr. McGraw,” Mike said. “As soon as they do, they’ll call.”
Miranda’s anger ebbed away as quickly as it had risen. She knew what they said was true; she needed more information. She cursed waking too soon; maybe if she’d slept longer…
“Let me get you some coffee,” Mike said. She nodded, sitting on the barstool beside him. The clock on the oven read 7:25 a.m.
“Is today Monday?” she asked. She felt like she had been asleep for more than one night. “Are the police going to be at the DMV?”
“I asked Detective Dunhy that,” Mike said. “He said they’d be waiting and would question them there. If they don’t show up they’ll put out a BOL and try to get warrants to search their homes.”
This sounded reasonable. So reasonable Miranda wanted to kick something. She stood and paced as she drank her coffee.
They talked more, canvassing the same scenarios they had discussed a thousand times before, but it was better than sitting in silence and imagining the worst. Miranda’s adrenal glands released a fresh gush into her system at regular intervals, making her feel nauseated and exhausted and the coffee was only making her heart race faster.
“I will sit on you and force some food into you before I let you starve yourself.” Mike said, his voice harder than she’d ever heard it. “I know you don’t feel like it but you’re going to be useless before too long if you don’t eat something.”
She knew he was right and heaved a giant sigh.
“Give me the bagels then, dammit.”
She reached into the bag, grabbed one and bit into it. “Happy?” she asked, her mouth full.
Miranda’s phone rang and they all jumped. She fumbled for it, swallowed the dry bagel, and nearly choked on her hello.
It was Detective Dunhy.
“I wanted to let you know that we just spoke to both Mr. McGraw and Joanie,” he said. “They claim to have been together at her home on Sunday for the whole day. They gave us permission to look through their apartments, so I’m not very hopeful we will find anything. Both were quite agreeable; seemed shocked that such a thing had happened and expressed their hope that Noah would be found quickly. Mr. McGraw said to tell you to take as much time off as you need.” He paused. “I’m sorry, Miranda.
Miranda sat in stunned silence.
“Mrs. Griffith? Are you there?”
“I’m here,” she said, feeling dizzy. “I can’t believe it. I didn’t think they’d actually come to work.”
“You were hoping they’d go missing, to make the case clear-cut. I know,” said Detective Dunhy. He sighed. “Unfortunately, most cases are not that easy.”
“I just know they have him,” she said.
“I’m sure you do, but the evidence does not support that. We’re heading to their homes and will contact you if we find anything. Until then, try to keep your hopes up. And call me if you think of anything else.”
The line went dead and Miranda dug her fingernails into her palm, determined to keep from crying again. She sat heavily on the barstool and put her head on her arms.
“I can’t believe they showed up at work. I can’t believe it,” she said. “Where could they be keeping him? Help me think, I can’t think straight.” She looked at Mike pleadingly.
“Does Mr. McGraw have another home? If they have him, they must have him somewhere nearby.”
“Don’t say if,” she said. “It’s not if. It’s not. I know they have him!”
“Sugar, please,” her father said. “We’re all in this together.”
He looked so tired in that moment that Miranda’s conscience smote her and she relented. She couldn’t expect them all to feel as strongly as she did. Noah hadn’t spoken to them, after all.
“I’m sorry. I just can’t help it,” she said sadly. “I’ll probably bite all your heads off more than once until I have Noah back in my arms. Forgive me, please?”
The tears came again, and again she wondered if they would ever just dry up. Mike and her father joined together in a group hug with her in the center. Her mother came into the kitchen and joined in. She felt the cumulative love and concern of the whole family surrounding her, and her strength renewed.
“Maybe the cops will find something,” she said in a muffled voice from Mike’s shoulder. “Maybe they’ll find chloroform or a whole room with photos of Noah.”
She shuddered at the thought, but it gave her hope.
Noah was trying to be brave, but it was getting harder and harder. His feet were tingling and falling asleep, dangling off the end of the chair. His arms were numb and his wrists burned from the chafing of the rope. He was afraid of the dolls and their staring eyes. He sat in the deafening silence of the house and listened to it pop and settle as the hours ticked past. He cried.
Mama, he thought. Mama, come and find me. Please. Help me, Mama. I miss you.
He studied every corner of the room and counted the roses on the wall (682). He tried not to look at the dolls.
With a growing sense of dread he realized he had to go to the bathroom. He hadn’t seen Mr. McGraw or Joanie in hours. Joanie told him to be a good boy and play nice. She cackled when she said it. Joanie reminded him of a lizard with poisonous spit he had seen once on a nature program. When the lizard bit something it didn’t have to kill it right away, it just had to wait until it died from the poisonous spit, slowly and painfully.
He was bored and scared and he tried screaming as loud as he could, screaming and screaming for help like he knew he should, but when the echoes of his screams died away in the house he heard no sounds of rescue from people outside. He wiggled in his chair but when he almost tipped it over, he stopped in fright. He did not want to fall over tied to a chair.
He had to go to the bathroom worse and worse.
He thought maybe he could make the rope snap, just think hard enough and he could get free, but Mama had said not to let anyone know about his powers; she had made him promise, and if he got free of the ropes what would he do then? What if they came back before he could get help? What if they figured out he had more powers?
He knew that if Joanie and Mr. McGraw found out he had more powers than just numbers and horse names, he would be in more trouble than he already was. He was terrified of Joanie’s lizard face, and he had visions of her cutting him into little pieces to figure out how to use his powers for herself.
Exhausted, he slept, slumped over in the hard kitchen chair, head dangling to the side, drool dampening his T-shirt. He slept, exhausted beyond enduring, wishing and hoping for rescue that didn’t come. He slept, and he dreamt, and he tried to find Mama in his head, tried to reach her in that in-between place that only sleep touches.
Edward McGraw was nervous. He was nervous, but he smiled. It was important, and Joanie had lectured him fiercely. It was absolutely essential that he put on the performance of a lifetime, so he smiled innocently and wrinkled his brow in concern when the cops showed up.
He did a really good job, he thought, looking back. The detective had swallowed every bit of their story. They were crazy about each other and had spent the entire weekend at her house, they said, celebrating their love. Joanie was great, too.
That woman sure could lie like a rug, he thought admiringly. She made sorrowful, whimpering noises when the cop told them about Noah. So sad! So unfortunate! I hope you catch the bastards that took him. He had added to her sentiments, as best he could. The cop nodded and agreed.
He reviewed their performances, somewhat amazed at how well he did. His desk chair creaked in alarm as he tilted back and put his hands behind his head. They wouldn’t find a single thing in their apartments. Joanie said they should take Noah somewhere else. Like his parents’ house on the opposite side of town. They’d never look that far because he was squeaky clean, and Joanie too. Not even a parking ticket on their records.
They made her apartment look lived in over the weekend. Dirty dishes in the sink; a bed unmade, recently rented DVDs from RedBox. They thought this one through, for sure. That Joanie was a smart one. Soon, they’d both be rich as Midas and they’d get out of this hideous office and run away together. Live in a high-rise in Atlantic City. Somewhere exciting, where they could spend their money on fine steak and diamonds.
The only real question was what to do with Noah when they were finished with him. He pursed his lips. They couldn’t just let him go, could they?
Best not to worry about that for now. Joanie knew what to do. It had been so easy, so flawless, the way she had grabbed Noah off the street. Nobody had seen it, she said. Nobody had a clue.
She was like a ghost. A ghost with an ass that just wouldn’t quit. He smiled and lapsed into a daydream.
As if on cue, Joanie walked in and shut the door behind her.
He stretched out his arms but she looked decidedly un-amorous and he became alarmed. She had a temper that frightened him.
“Dammit, Eddie,” she hissed. “You’ve got to be working, you hear me? Working, like nothing happened. If we just sit here, people will get suspicious. You’ve got to work and act like there’s nothing going on in your miserable little life.”
“I was just daydreaming a little bit,” he said, mollified. “About you and me, if you know what I mean.” He tried to pull her to him but she stepped out of reach.
“Get busy,” she said and stalked out, leaving him completely deflated.
Later, they closed up the office and drove to her apartment, just in case anyone was watching. They watched a mindless television program and had extremely creative sex before moving quietly through the darkened parking lot to an Oldsmobile on the opposite side of the complex. The car also belonged to Eddie’s deceased parents and was still registered in their names. They drove twenty minutes across Tulsa to a nondescript suburb and parked in front of a small red brick ranch house.
“I’m about to bust open,” Eddie chortled, rubbing his palms together. Joanie insisted he wait for the race results. His enthusiasm was a dangerous thing.
Entering the house, he went straight to the monitor and flipped it on. From the adjacent room they could hear a muffled crying.
“Can you check on Noah?” he asked Joanie as he brought up the online racing results.
“I will not,” she said coldly. “You go see what’s wrong with the brat. He likes you better; you’re not the one who nabbed him.”
Mr. McGraw scrolled down the page. The results were there, and he stared at them, and then at Joanie, with his mouth open. Joanie turned livid and stalked into the bedroom.
Noah sat, tied to the chair, pale faced. The crack of Joanie’s hand across his face sounded like a gunshot in the small room. He almost tipped sideways in the chair from the force of it, eyes wide with shock and fear. Straightening up again, he began to cry in earnest.
“You filthy brat!” she spat. “What’s your game, huh? You trying to play us, you little creep? Didn’t you tell him, Eddie, what would happen if he tried to screw us over?”
“Easy, Joanie,” Mr. McGraw said, lumbering in behind her. “Maybe he was just confused. Maybe it was the chloroform, huh? Maybe?”
“Maybe,” she said grudgingly, staring at Noah with narrowed eyes. She leaned towards him and shook her fist in his face as he cringed. “Listen, kid. We just lost a hundred dollars because of you. Next time it won’t be a slap you get, you hear? Next time you get my fist in your face.”
Noah was terrified. Joanie’s face hovered before him like a snake about to strike. His cheek burned and a great red handprint had already begun to rise from his pale skin.
“What is that fucking smell?” she said. She backed away from Noah with a look of disgust. “He shit himself! Seriously, he’s like an animal!”
“I tried to hold it,” Noah sobbed. “I tried to hold it but I couldn’t. I need to go potty!”
“Joanie, what did we expect?” Mr. McGraw said, sounding a little panicked. “He’s only a kid. We left him here all day.”
“Take the fucking animal to the bathroom and get him cleaned up,” she said, gritting her teeth. “And when you’re done, get him to give you some names again. The right names. I’m going to order a pizza.”
Noah shivered from exhaustion and pain. Showered clumsily and wrapped in a towel, Mr. McGraw sat him on a clean chair in the kitchen where he and Joanie could keep an eye on him as they sat at the computer desk.
The kitchen was mostly olive green with peeling linoleum and Formica countertops, a time capsule from the 1940s. A shotgun leaned against the wall by the front door. Noah’s wrists were bleeding and he cried out in pain as Mr. McGraw wrapped them in some ancient gauze he found in his parents’ medicine cabinet.
“Shut up you little brat,” Joanie muttered as she shoved a piece of pizza into her mouth. Seeing him follow her every movement, she grinned wickedly. “You like pizza? Huh? Wish you could have some, do you?” She waved it under his nose and his lip trembled. His heart was beating a strange and unnatural rhythm and his head felt too heavy for his neck. His stomach had stopped growling hours ago but now it began again in earnest, churning.
“Stop it, Joanie,” Mr. McGraw said, with as much force as he could. “You make him too weak, what good is that gonna do? He’ll be too weak to pick any of the right horses, huh?”
Joanie shrugged and turned away.
“He better start picking the right horses before I pick his teeth out of my fist,” she muttered.
“You want some pizza, Noah?” Mr. McGraw asked. “Here you go.”
Noah wolfed down the slice and gulped a glass of water. He felt faint with relief, and slumped in the chair with his eyes closed.
“We’re going to try again, Noah, OK?” Mr. McGraw forced a pained smile. “Your first try didn’t work out, little man. You picked the horse that was dead last. I think that was just a mistake. I don’t think you did it on purpose like Joanie thinks. You don’t want to upset Joanie, right? We’re going to take a little more time and pick more carefully.”
Noah did not want to upset Joanie. He wouldn’t make himself feel better by talking ugly to her in his head anymore. He wondered if she could hear what he was saying in his head and that was why she was so mean. He was afraid, truly and deeply afraid, and every time he glanced at the shotgun by the door he felt sick.
Mr. McGraw brought the print-outs from the computer, sat beside Noah, and read the names of the horses. Slowly and carefully he made his way through the list, enunciating the names as though Noah were a foreigner asking for directions. Noah closed his eyes and concentrated, trying harder to see the winner and not just the excitement of the race.
This time, he had to be right.
The Department of Motor Vehicles is possibly the most depressing place on earth, Miranda thought. The cheap-ass Wal-Mart tinsel strung half-heartedly against the dark-paneled wall did nothing to help and might have even exacerbated the general sense of ennui that hung palpably in the air.
If the zombie apocalypse ever breaks out, she liked to think, it will start here, because everybody I work with is already half zombie.
There was Susan, the plump fifty-something with eyes deadened by painkillers, who popped Tramadol like candy because of a disc issue, Joanie, the middle aged bleached blond who wore braces on her forearms to compensate for the debilitating carpal tunnel that she ceaselessly complained about, and Patricia, the 22-year-old high school dropout who shuffled back and forth all day long from copier to filing cabinet, smacking gum and twirling her stringy brown hair.
And in the midst of them all was Miranda. It was only a matter of time before she joined the ranks of the undead, she thought. Between the fluorescent lights and the smell (decades of old cigarette smoke, printer ink, and stale coffee), she was certain to turn her brain over as well.
It wasn’t that she minded the work. She found the endless stream of humanity that came to get vehicles registered or apply for licenses or transfer titles to be really interesting, even if they weren’t always at their best after standing in line for an hour. She always tried to make it less painful by smiling brightly and making conversation.
She noticed that during the busiest times, men would subtly jockey for position so she could wait on them. Joanie and Susan noticed it too, and it pissed them off, but what did she care? She had phone numbers slipped to her by the flirtiest men, which always made her laugh before placing them into the shredder. The few times she had taken one of them up on a date, it had ended badly. She had a strange suspicion that accepting numbers at the DMV doomed the relationship before it even started.
On the Monday after Brenda died, she had Noah, who sat quietly on the counter as she worked. The daycare would not be open for another two days, and her boss, Mr. Eddie McGraw—a corpulent man who wore a cowboy hat to cover his shiny bald head and who had a slight crush on her—told her it was OK to bring the boy.
Noah was studiously counting a pile of change she gave him as she waited on an old woman who needed to register her brand new Corvette.
“What are you going to do with a Corvette, Mrs. Weinstein?” she asked the woman with a wink. “You gonna go chase down a young hottie?”
“You know it, girlie,” the blue haired woman smiled. “My husband, God rest his soul, left me money and a half to live on and now that I’ve given enough away to sooth my conscience I’m getting something for me! My grandkids will have the coolest grandma in town.”
“They sure will,” Miranda laughed. “But can you fit them in the back seat?”
“Who cares?” she cackled, bringing a smile, even, to Susan’s sour face. As the old woman stumped out, Joanie flipped the closed sign and they all began to shut down their computers and close up their stations.
“Anybody hand you a phone number today?” she said tersely as Miranda set a pile of papers atop the shredder.
“Not today, Joanie. I thought maybe that chick with the pierced nose was going to give me hers, but I guess I was wrong.”
This shut Joanie up.
“Mama, is it time to go home?” asked Noah as he swung his small legs, crashing them into the filing cabinets below. Joanie scowled and shushed him.
“Yes honey, finally time to go home. You were a really good boy today.”
As she swung him down from the counter he gave a small whoop and swung his hands wide, connecting solidly with Joanie’s Big Gulp from the corner Quick Trip. The enormous cup toppled over. The plastic lid popped off and its icy contents poured onto Joanie’s desktop and cascaded down the front of her station.
“Goddammit!” she yelled, turning red. “What the hell are you doing, kid?”
Miranda was taken aback at the vitriol. Joanie was a grump but she didn’t know anyone could look so evil. Glaring at Noah, she looked as if she wanted to butcher him and eat him for dinner.
“Your brat just destroyed my station, Miranda!” She spat the words as she reached for a handful of napkins to sop up the mess. Miranda strode to the bathroom and snatched the paper towels from their holder, coming back in time to see Joanie shove Noah away as he handed her more napkins, almost knocking him over.
“He’s just trying to help, Joanie,” she said.
Joanie ignored her, eyes straight ahead, mopping up the pools of Diet Coke.
“I’m sorry, Miss Joanie,” Noah said in a small voice, eyes brimming over. Miranda’s heart broke and she gathered him into a hug.
“It’s OK, honey. You didn’t mean to. Just sit over here on my chair while we clean it up.”
She unwrapped a fistful of towels and bent to wipe the front of Joanie’s file cabinets. Joanie was seething.
“You don’t have to be such a bitch about it, Joanie,” Miranda muttered.
“Don’t call me a bitch, tramp,” she said, loudly.
Blood rose in Miranda’s face. She threw the sopping towels on the floor.
“Fine. You can clean it up yourself. What is wrong with you anyway?”
Mr. McGraw came trundling out of his office holding the newspaper.
“Now, now, what’s going on out here? What happened?”
Noah told him.
“Ah well, accidents happen, accidents happen, right?” he said, attempting to mollify Joanie, who glared at him with so much heat it was a wonder he didn’t combust on the spot.
Turning to Noah, his voice had a pained cheerfulness in the charged atmosphere.
“Gotta get my numbers in. Jackpot’s only two million but I wouldn’t turn it down, right?” he said. “Noah, wanna help me pick some numbers so I can win the jackpot, little man? How about you pick the first five and I pick the Powerball?”
“Awright.” Noah said.
“So what do you think the first one will be?”
“Eight,” said Noah without hesitation.
“OK, eight. Now what?”
Miranda blinked. She didn’t think Noah even knew the number fifty-nine.
Mr. McGraw wrote it down and looked questioningly at Noah, who picked eleven, thirteen, and forty-seven for the last three numbers.
“All right! That’ll do. Thanks little man.” Mr. McGraw said. “I’m going to pick twenty-three for the Powerball. I’ll let you know tomorrow how rich I am. I have a good feeling about this!”
With a hearty good-bye he lumbered out.
Joanie finished wiping down her station and stalked out without saying a word, casting one more hateful glance towards Noah as she left. Miranda was still shaken by the confrontation.
“Miss Joanie was really mad,” Noah said.
“Yes, she really was, wasn’t she?” Miranda said.
“She wanted to hurt me.”
“No, she didn’t want to hurt you. She was just upset,” she spoke consolingly, and hoped it was true.
Miranda buckled Noah into his car seat and settled in to the driver’s seat with a sigh. Time for a glass of wine and some mindless television.
“Nice of you to help Mr. McGraw with his numbers.” she said. She smiled into the rear view mirror at Noah.
“Mr. McGraw’s nice. I like numbers,” he said cheerfully, singing a counting song he heard on TV. “Mr. McGraw’s gonna be rich.”
“Yes, indeed, I’m sure he will be.”
The next morning, as she scrambled eggs for Noah and brewed her coffee, the doorbell buzzed once, and then several times in a row as though a whole swarm of bees had taken up residence in it.
Miranda wiped her hands on a towel and hurried to make the noise stop. Throwing open the door and fully expecting to see a neighborhood kid disappearing around the corner, she was startled to find Mr. McGraw on her stoop, doing a dance like someone with bladder control issues.
“Mr. McGraw, what are you–”
He didn’t let her finish but grabbed her by the shoulders, pushing her backwards into her entryway with his enormous beer gut and talking so fast she could not tell what he was saying.
“Mr. McGraw, slow down! What the hell are you doing here? Do I need to call somebody?”
She felt trapped and more than a little anxious, and wished she had brought the frying pan to clang him over the head.
“No, no, I’m sorry. So sorry,” he panted, trying to catch his breath with his hand over his heart. “But Miranda, Miranda, I won the lottery!”
“What? Two million dollars?”
“No, not the whole lottery, but a hundred thousand dollars, Miranda. A hundred thousand! I got five numbers but I didn’t get the Powerball.”
“Mr. McGraw, that’s wonderful. I’m so happy for you.”
Miranda was nervous at the intrusion, nervous at his level of agitation, and was more than ready for the visit to be over.
“Don’t you see?” he said, eyes darting around her small foyer. “Your son—Noah is the key. He picked those numbers. I’ve been working the lottery for years now, years, and this is the first time I’ve won anything, much less a hundred thousand dollars. He’s got, I don’t know, he’s got some kind of gift! I just thought maybe he could help me one more time.”
“Mr. McGraw, this is absurd,” Miranda said. “You’ve gotten yourself far too excited and you’re not thinking clearly. Don’t you think if Noah had a gift like that I would have noticed by now? I’m his mother.”
She was more than nervous now, she was frightened. There was no way she was going to let this lunatic pump her son like he was a bellows of prosperity. She had to stop this now, and fast.
“Where is he, Miranda? Let me ask him. Just let me ask him to pick some horse names, please? There are races in Oklahoma City today and I know…”
“Absolutely not, Mr. McGraw,” she said, sharply. “And I would appreciate it if you would drop the idea entirely. You are not going to ask my son for any numbers or horse’s names or even the answer to the crossword puzzle. You need to leave right now.”
The coldness of her command broke through Mr. McGraw’s fevered brain and his excitement evaporated. He stood still for the first time and looked at Miranda, struck by her ferocity.
“I’m sorry, Miranda,” he stammered. “I guess I got a little carried away. You’re right, of course. I’m sure it was just a weird fluke.”
Laughing nervously, he backed out the doorway and stood on the stoop once more.
“I’m really sorry, Miranda. I was just so excited. I’ll see you at work. I might be taking a nice vacation pretty soon though; might even buy myself a fishin’ boat.”
“You do that, Mr. McGraw. You do that. That would be real nice.”
She all but shut the door in his flushed face and leaned heavily against it, sliding the deadbolt into place. She felt as though she had escaped a very real danger, as though a cold and menacing hand had just brushed her throat. Returning to the kitchen where her eggs were now cold and curdled, she looked at her boy, small and sweet in his footie pajamas, smiled brightly and burst into tears.
He should not try to change things. Mama told him it was a bad idea. They had a long talk about it after he told Mr. McGraw his special numbers. He shouldn’t try to change things, and he should stay out of people’s business. Sometimes, though…sometimes Noah couldn’t help it.
He was alone on the playground. That was OK. He liked it better that way. Other kids were all right but they were pushy and really loud sometimes. He liked it quiet. Quiet didn’t bother him. Mama was inside having a conference with his teacher. He knew his teacher was saying that he was peculiar and maybe Mama should get some tests done on him. Maybe you should be worried is what the teacher meant.
Mama was worried, he knew that.
But she understood. At least, she tried really hard to understand, and that was almost the same thing. Mama would understand if he tried to change something just this one time.
Because the squirrel was really cute. It was just a baby, too; he could tell by its smallness and stringy tail. And if he didn’t do anything, a big orange tomcat was going to kill it, just kill it and not even eat it because that’s what cats liked to do.
He didn’t blame the cat. Cats were made to kill squirrels, they couldn’t help it. But he didn’t want this baby squirrel to get killed for no reason at all, not even to get eaten. It didn’t seem fair.
He watched the corner of the nearest house and waited. Sure enough, a large alley cat appeared. The battered old tom was scarred and missing part of an ear but its yellow eyes were shrewd and almost immediately it noticed the little squirrel nosing around in the autumn leaves at the base of the oak tree. Noah watched as the cat went into hunting position, shrinking low into the grass and creeping forward, nose barely skimming the ground. He felt a strange primordial excitement in his chest at the sight, as though he were part of the cat too, straining forward to get his teeth into the firm, warm body.
The squirrel was oblivious. Its senses were not yet finely-honed enough to differentiate between the many different sounds of wind and grass and creeping cat; it was barely out of the nest, probably on its first foray away from its mother.
Its mother would never know that it had been killed by a cat, Noah knew this. He wasn’t stupid enough to believe stories about talking animals that wore clothes and cleaned with feather dusters. Animals were just animals.
But this squirrel was so very cute and so very tiny and all alone. Noah crouched down slowly and watched the cat. Probably he should just let the cat do what it was supposed to do. Probably he shouldn’t try to change anything. Mama said that the way things happened was just the way things were supposed to be; just because he knew about them before anybody else didn’t mean he was supposed to do anything about them.
He wasn’t sure, though. Especially right now. Right now he wanted to leap at the cat, to clap his hands at it and scare it away from the squirrel so that it could go on living and learning how to bury nuts and climb trees.
So he did. Right as the cat was wiggling its butt to pounce, right before it could move any closer, he jumped forward and yelled.
“Yaaaah!” he said. “Yah, yah!” He clapped his hands and the cat bolted in the other direction, tail puffed out three times larger than it had been, around the corner of the school building.
The baby squirrel, just as startled, tore away from Noah and shot through the chain-link fence and into the street, where a passing car flattened it onto the asphalt. A small puff, like that of black smoke, hung above it before evaporating into the air.
Mama was right after all.
He shouldn’t try to change things.