Noah knew things. Noah knows mama would sing to him when he would tell her things. Noah knows Noah knows. He liked how it sounded and he would laugh and sing it along with her.
Most of the time they were little things, like how the phone was about to ring or what ad was coming up on the television, but sometimes they were big. He didn’t like knowing the big things; the big things were not funny and mama never sang Noah knows to him about them. Mostly she would just hug him and rock him in her lap when he told her because the big things were sad and scary and there was nothing either of them could do about them.
She cried when he told her about the baby squirrel. She cried more than he did, and he wasn’t sure why because she once said squirrels were just rats with bushy tails. But she cried a lot and rocked him and didn’t let him go until he asked if he could please go play. Mama was funny sometimes. He didn’t know much about her. He tried a little bit once, a tiny bit because he was curious. He pushed a little, but nothing happened. She was closed up to him, and he was glad.
Some people were closed up. For those who weren’t, he didn’t try to find stuff out. Usually it just happened that he knew it, like it dropped into his head from a long way away. Other times, if he was really curious, he pushed with his mind and things dropped. Mama told him one day that this was a very bad thing to do and he should never do it, that it was like peeking through a hole in the bathroom door; it was rude, and so he didn’t do it after that.
But he couldn’t help the things that dropped by themselves.
He knew, for instance, that his preschool teacher had a baby that died when it was not even born. He knew that even though she had three other children, she thought about that baby all the time and sometimes still cried because of it. She named the baby Ruby Lee but hadn’t told anybody that it had a name. Grown-ups were really funny, but really interesting too. The kids in his class didn’t have much going on in their minds except how much they hated peas and didn’t understand math and stuff like that. Grown-ups were way more interesting.
But he didn’t push anymore because Mama said it was bad, and he believed her.
School was hard for him because the things that dropped got really distracting sometimes. Sometimes the stuff that came into his head was so noisy that he couldn’t hear his teacher telling him it was lunchtime or where to put his coat. He couldn’t tell her what was really happening; Mama told him he must never tell anyone because nobody would believe him and they would call him a liar but he thought there was probably an even better reason than that.
One night, he watched the movie “E.T.” Mama was nervous that he might be scared but he wasn’t scared at all, not even a little bit, until the part where the grown-ups take E.T. away from Elliot. They strapped E.T. to a table and Noah knew then they were going to cut him up, just chop him into little pieces to try to find out how he could fly and do magic. He understood that adults always think that’s the best way to figure out magic; by chopping the thing up and looking inside it. It was stupid and they ruined everything but they couldn’t help it, just like a cat needed to kill squirrels.
It was weird but he knew they would do the same to him; Mama didn’t even have to say it.
Mr. McGraw bought a Tracker bass boat with a cherry red diamond-coat finish, and he posted photographs of it all around his office and spoke of it as “her” and “she” to anyone who would listen. He also bought a bigger hat and the largest belt buckle Miranda had ever seen, although only half of it showed, peeking out from under his indomitable gut.
“I swear to God, it’s the size of a dinner plate,” she said to her mother, Lucy, stopping in to discuss Christmas dinner plans and Noah’s wish list.
“Don’t swear to God, Miranda,” Her mother frowned.
“Sorry, Mom. But you’ve got to come in sometime and see what I’m talking about. McGraw is getting so weird and it’s not just the boat and the belt buckle. His whole demeanor has changed; he tries to get every woman who comes into the place to go for a ride sometime on his boat. Like it’s a freaking yacht and he’s the prince of Arabia!”
“Well, let the man have a little fun, dear. He could probably use some female companionship.”
“Well, sure,” Miranda said. “But I race the other girls to get done each night so I don’t have to be alone with him, or Joanie either, for that matter. She’s really weird, too. I think they’re dating or something; they are always whispering together in his office. He used to be a harmless old guy, but now he’s so…”
“Do you think he’s dangerous?” Lucy furrowed her brow.
“I guess not,” Miranda sighed. “I’m fairly sure he’s just—obsessed. But he’s a big guy and can be kind of formidable. He plays every lottery there is now, too, and all the horse races. He’s decided he’s on a roll but he hasn’t won anything since. I wish he’d win millions and retire. At least then he’d stop thinking Noah is the key to everything.”
“Does he? Still?”
“He asks about him all the time, like he’s hoping I’ll let him pick winners for him at the races.”
“Maybe you should lodge a complaint? Like a harassment thing?”
“He’s not harassing anybody…” Miranda shifted uneasily as she recalled the encounter in her foyer. “At any rate, Joanie likes the attention. I hope they are dating. Maybe if she had sex once in a while it would lighten her up a little. She gives me the death glare all day long.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” Lucy said, grimacing. “Joanie seems kind of dangerous, from what you’ve told me. I don’t like the idea of you being alone with her for sure.”
“Let’s talk about something nice now. Sorry I brought all that up; Christmas dinner is a way more enjoyable topic.”
“Still, I don’t like to think about you being in any danger,” her mother said. “It was bad enough with you on your own after Hugh’s trial. Your father and I sure enjoyed having you and Noah here. Are you doing all right in that little duplex? Is it safe?”
“I love it, mom. I know you enjoy having the house to yourselves again. We’re fine. I have a good job and I like being independent.”
“I just wish you got more out of that bastard.”
“Me too,” Miranda said.
“Honestly, if I knew he pushed you into signing a pre-nup I would have insisted that you not marry him at all. I would have thrown a fit.”
“And I would have married him anyway. What did I know? I was a ditzy, starry eyed cheerleader. I liked his attention. Everybody thought I was the luckiest girl in the world. Even you and dad.”
“He had us all fooled,” her mother said, sadly. “And at least we have our sweet Noah, don’t we? So there’s always a silver lining. But if that bastard ever comes near you again–”
“Mom, don’t get all worked up. Hugh’s in prison, and hopefully he’ll stay there for good. I’m just glad we were able to get enough from the civil suit for Noah’s future. My job will get us through until he’s eighteen and can decide what he wants to do with it.”
Her father came into the room and kissed her on the temple. “We really miss you, sugar. I just had a nice chat with Noah in the living room. He’s building a tower with those new blocks you bought, Lucy. He says I’m going to die.” He laughed heartily.
“He did? I’m so sorry Dad. It’s a weird phase he’s going through.”
“Don’t worry one moment. Lord knows that day is coming.”
“Not any time soon, I hope,” Lucy said.
“Did he say when, exactly?” Miranda asked. Her mouth was dry.
“No, just that it was going to happen. What’s wrong, Miranda? You look pale.”
“I’m fine. It’s been an odd couple of weeks. He keeps saying that to people. I don’t like it.”
“Just a phase, like you said, dear,” Lucy said, pouring her daughter a glass of wine. “Children come out with all kinds of strange things. You used to tell people they were pregnant, do you remember that?”
“What? No. I don’t remember that at all. How old was I?”
“Probably the same age as Noah. A little younger. About three I think. A few times you were right and they really were pregnant and they didn’t know it, or they had just found out. Made us wonder if you had some special gift for a while.” Lucy and Dale looked at each other and laughed.
“But I wasn’t always right? Not always?”
“Some of them we didn’t even know; just people on the street. Some were friends and out of all of them a few really were pregnant. We figured you heard us talking about it. Actually, those that weren’t pregnant at the time–” Lucy thought for a moment. “Yes, I think they all did go on to have children, eventually. Doesn’t really make you Nostradamus, does it?”
“Of course not.”
Miranda laughed nervously and took several mouthfuls of wine.
“That’s not Kool-Aid, you know.”
Miranda wiped her lips with a napkin and tried to breathe easy. Her hands would not stop shaking.
“Was there anything else? Or anybody else in the family who did stuff like that?”
“Your grandmother—my mother—always said that her mother was something of a clairvoyant. Made a hobby out of reading people’s tea leaves and palms and things like that. Sometimes people would come from miles away to hear what she had to say. And mother herself—you know this—was always uncanny when it came to the races. Remember how she won ten thousand dollars?”
“I do remember,” Miranda said, softly. “I had forgotten, but now I remember.”
They were on summer vacation in her mother’s hometown of Texarkana. The women went to the horse races in Shreveport. When they came sweeping into the house later that evening the tumult of voices brought all the men and children together in a hurry. Eventually the details were sorted out. The story of how Louise picked the winning trifecta and got so excited she screamed and her false teeth shot out of her mouth had become a thing of family legend.
“Your grandmother picked up a little bit of a gambling habit after that,” her mother said. We were a little worried about her because she won so much we didn’t think we could convince her to stop. One day she just up and quit on her own, though. Said she was scared of the money. It was upsetting her life. I can’t imagine being upset by money.”
“Funny,” Miranda said, unsmiling.
“So where’s the clairvoyant in you, babe?” Dale asked, pulling Lucy in for a kiss. “I haven’t noticed you winning any lotteries lately.”
“But I always know what you’re thinking,” Lucy exclaimed, patting her husband on the cheek.
“Please, not right here in front of me,” Miranda groaned.
“Don’t let Noah’s baby talk worry you,” her mother said. “If he has a touch of the Robinson clairvoyance it surely won’t be enough to plan a trip to Vegas. Pretty watered down by now, I think.”
Oh, but what you don’t know! Miranda thought.
That night Miranda dreamt she was standing in the rain on a street corner lit by one very yellow and flickering street lamp. The rain was torrential; the drops threw themselves down from heaven like so many tiny kamikaze pilots, violently pelting her flimsy umbrella. She gripped Noah’s hand, hard, fearing she would lose him in the deluge.
Across the street, barely visible through the sheets of water, there was an enormous dark form. Though she could not make out its shape, the sight of it filled her with fear; she tried to turn and run but she was rooted on the spot.
She looked anxiously at her son and found him gazing up at her, his face a halo of serenity but for his small mouth, which had been sewn shut with coarse twine in large, ungainly stitches. She tried to scream but no sound came out, tried to gather him into her arms and sob but could not move an inch.
Don’t be afraid, Mama. Noah said, though his lips couldn’t part to make a sound. Don’t be afraid. He spoke it straight from his mind to hers. But Miranda was afraid, deathly afraid. As she looked up she saw that the object had moved closer and was now in the middle of the street, and though she still could not discern its form she thought it might be a man and grew even more terrified. It was at least twelve feet tall and vaguely rectangular, like a monolithic statue from a savage island, and Miranda began to cry from fear and frustration.
Mama, Daddy is coming, Noah said, nodding down the street, as at that moment a classic old Camaro shot through the drenching rain and skidded to a halt in front of them, blocking the approach of the dark shape.
“Get in,” Dean shouted, as the door popped open. Suddenly released from her paralysis, she clambered into the seat with Noah. There was a roar of rage from all around them as he hit the gas and peeled out, sending up plumes of water from the back tires, and the whole car shook as though something enormous had struck it.
“What the hell was that?” she sobbed, giving voice to all her fears at once.
“Just the future,” Dean said.
Miranda awoke damp with sweat, sheets sticking to her as the cold rays of the December morning stole through her blinds.
Staggering up, she hurried into the silvery darkness of Noah’s room where he lay, impossibly small in his twin bed. She snapped on the bedside lamp and almost cried with relief when she saw his tiny mouth, puckered with consternation at the sudden light, completely free of twine.
“Is it schooltime, Mama?” he asked, his voice grumbly.
“No, honey. No. I’m sorry. It’s Saturday. Go back to sleep now.” She turned the light off and climbed into the bed with him, spooning her body around his small form and pulling him into her chest. She wished she could return him to the womb, surround him with her own flesh and blood where he could come to no harm.
Just the future, Dean said. She could see him in her mind’s eye as clearly as her own face in a mirror. He looked radiant as ever, glowing with good health, and not phantasmal in the slightest. She knew that his appearance in her dream had something to do with the conversation she had earlier with her parents, but that did not make it any less real. His eyes had rested upon her and Noah with longing and sorrow, as they always did in her dreams, and a great pang of loneliness settled over her.
“You’ve got commitment issues, hon.”
Miranda and Nancy were arguing. Sitting in the mall food court, resting their shop-weary feet and waiting on Hannah, another childhood friend, they heatedly discussed Miranda’s sex life.
“Maybe I do. Who the hell could blame me?”
“Seriously. I know Hugh was a bad burn, but come on! You’ve had how many one night stands now? And all of them your fault, you know.”
“My fault? My fault how?”
“I mean, they didn’t have to be one night stands. You’re the one who decided that. Every one of those guys would have gone out with you again, but you never call anybody back. I’m worried about you, hon.”
“Hey, I use protection,” Miranda said defensively.
“That’s not what I’m worried about.” Nancy sighed. “Although I’m glad to hear it.”
“None of those guys was worth a call back.”
“And you’re basing this on what kind of evidence? You didn’t even give them a chance.”
“Because they all left before morning, that’s why. I want a guy who sticks around, you know, maybe even offers to make me breakfast, dammit. Not some loser who can’t stand to look at me in the bright light of day. They might leave me their numbers but I have my standards.”
“Honey,” Nancy said, taking Miranda’s hand in hers. “I’m just asking you to think about it. Maybe it’s time to get some counseling. Therapy might make you feel better; make you ready to take a chance on somebody.”
“I guess,” Miranda said reluctantly. “You have a point.”
Hannah walked up then, arms full of bags. “Looks like we’re talking about something serious?”
“My love life,” Miranda said. “Apparently I have commitment issues.”
“But you do, Randy. You do.”
“Ugh. Don’t call me that. It was a good nickname when I was a kid, but now it sounds almost perverted.”
Hannah laughed. “I see what you mean. You don’t have any problem getting men, just keeping them.”
“I’m just a little gun-shy, I guess.”
“Understandable. I would be too. We’re going out tonight; would you come with us? We’re going to the Red Dirt Dance Hall for a Christmas party; it’s going to be loads of fun. Maybe your dream guy will be there. You know, the one you actually call back?”
“I don’t know, guys.” Miranda felt suddenly weary. “I’m really tired. Haven’t been sleeping well. Had a doozy of a nightmare last night. Maybe I should pass.”
“Well, shoot,” Nancy said. “I was going to tell you there’s a guy Tom knows who’s coming. He’s really nice, Miranda. Really. We were going to introduce you. Please come. If you don’t like him, you can leave.”
“Really? Just leave, immediately?”
“Yes. We won’t hold it against you.” Hannah nodded in agreement.
“All right then. I’ll try.”
The Red Dirt Dance Hall, within walking distance from Miranda’s duplex, was crowded and noisy with the energy of a live band. She felt the eyes of several men upon her as she walked in, and that made her happy.
She had been especially careful with her makeup, picking out colors that made her large eyes even more emphatic, arching her brows and hollowing out her cheekbones. She had put her thick red hair up in a loose bun with just enough tendrils hanging down to be enticing. Her jeans were tight and her shirt was form fitting and her cowboy boots were suddenly itching to two-step. The fatigue fell away as she heard the live band and she was glad she had come. All the crazy in her life had earned her this moment, and she was going to make the most of every minute.
She claimed a spot at the bar by draping her coat over the back of a chair, slid herself up, and ordered a bourbon on the rocks. She was flanked on one side by a couple who were very into each other, possibly a first or second date, and on the other by a tall man who seemed to be alone. He gave her an appraising look as she leaned onto the bar to take a long slug on her drink, and she returned it in kind.
He was almost ridiculously good looking, with thick blond waves covering his head and blue eyes that wrinkled at the corners from plenty of laughter. He smiled and she saw that he was blessed with dimples, too.
“You here all alone?” he shouted above the music.
“Waiting for friends,” she said. “You?”
“Same. Want to dance while we wait?”
Nice and friendly. And there were those dimples again. She drained her drink, feeling warm all the way down to her toes, and nodded.
His name was Mike, and he spun her around the dance floor through three songs until she was breathless and begged to go back to the bar. His hand was large and warm and work-worn as he led her back to their seats, where he ordered for them both.
“You hot?” he laughed, fanning her with his cowboy hat.
“Yes!” she shouted, downing her drink in one go and finding it swiftly replaced with another. The door opened and the burst of cold November night air felt like heaven on her skin. She pressed closer to Mike and pretended to be chilled, and was gratified when he put his arm around her waist.
Nancy and Hannah arrived with their boyfriends, Tom and Joel, and when they located Miranda they wasted no time in spiriting her off to the bathroom for a conference.
“Hon, that’s him!” Nancy said excitedly as soon as the door was shut. “That’s the guy Tom wanted to introduce you to. Isn’t he amazing?”
“He’s the best thing here,” Hannah giggled.
“I’m telling Joel you said that,” Miranda teased, rolling her eyes. “But yeah, he seems really nice. And don’t worry about getting me home. I have a feeling I won’t be alone.”
“Three cheers for not going home alone,” Nancy said, and the six or seven other women in the bathroom cheered with them.
“How about a slow dance?” Mike asked as she returned. She nodded and finished her drink and they went back to the dance floor.
Slow dancing is not a skill that comes naturally to most people, Miranda knew, but he was good at everything, it seemed, and pulled her close, hand pressed against her lower back. She reached up to put her arms around his neck and smiled her most charming smile, which, she had found, was fairly potent. The room was spinning gently and every disturbing thought was successfully drowned out by a combination of alcohol and male attention.
She felt light and happy and cared about nothing at all except this man with the riveting blue eyes whose pelvis was swaying against hers in an intoxicating way.
He bent forward and kissed her, searching her tongue with his. He tasted pleasingly of beer and pretzel salt and she returned the search with one of her own, becoming more breathless by the moment.
Mike let out a contented sigh and smiled at her. “That’s a nice flavor,” he said. “Got any more?”
“Maybe you’ll find out,” she said, rocking her hips against his. “I have all kinds of flavors.”
He spun her away and laughed loudly when she staggered back to him, then dipped her for good measure before planting a kiss on her neck.
She couldn’t imagine a better time, and thought the only danger was in the night ending too soon, going home too early with this man and his dimples, having sex and passing out. She was not yet ready for it to end with the usual cold awakening to slanting sunlight on an empty bed.
She had a good feeling about Mike, for whatever that was worth–she didn’t think he was a closet axe murderer–but he was also a little too eager, and she was planning to stay until the very last call. So she pushed away from him and returned to the bar, feigning fatigue, and he followed her to order more drinks.
This was good, she thought. This was just what she needed. She looked around the room. There were beautiful women everywhere, from tightly toned brunettes to blondes with enormous assets. None of them had a fraction of a clue about the power they wielded. Lonely and bored, even the most beautiful was afraid of being alone. All of them were too anxious to settle, far too ready to hit the deck with any clueless and panting young man.
She would not be that, no. She would stretch this night out; make Mr. Dimples work for it before she took him home.
Only she didn’t. Within a few minutes, when he asked if she’d like to step out for some fresh air, she nodded and that had been the end of that. Home was a mere step or two away it seemed, and they groped each other all the way there, desperation growing by the moment.
After fumbling the door open and throwing twenties at the babysitter (who left in a hurry), they fell onto her bed and Mike proved himself good at everything, indeed. And as they rolled over, exhausted and sated, she smiled to herself and slipped into a blissfully dreamless sleep.