Chapter Seventeen - An Invitation

Caleb was overjoyed to see Noel in the morning, and giggled and squirmed as Noel scooped him up and gave him several noisy kisses on his face and neck.

"Did you miss me?" Noel asked him and Caleb nodded vigorously. "I missed you. Mr. Malcolm said you got my postcard and drew me a city. Will you show it to me after church?"

More nodding from Caleb, his arms around Noel's neck, and he didn't let Noel put him down until it was time to get in the Packard, no matter how thundery Emmanuel looked as he walked behind them.

I waved as they drove off, and took my time getting ready to go out myself. No church for me, of course -- not even a mystical city like New Orleans overcame a life of agnosticism -- but Rene Gaspard had invited me to meet him and Angelique for breakfast that morning, and I took them up on it eagerly. Between all the goings-on in Fidele, I hadn't made time to come into the city for a few weeks, and I missed them.

They were waiting for me at one of the outdoor tables at a tiny cafe in the Quarter, its wrought-iron balcony dripping with orange and yellow zinnias. As it usually did, Angelique's gaze darted over my shoulder when she saw me, but she smiled cheerfully and allowed me to kiss her cheek.

"Sit, Sarge," Rene said as he rose and pulled out a chair for me. "Why you insist on walking so much, I'll never know."

"I like to prove that I can," I said, but was grateful to take the chair. I had parked nearly two blocks away from the cafe -- this part of the city had not modernized itself with parking lots yet, and it was all the prettier for it. Unfortunately, my bad leg did not appreciate beauty.

We chatted about their wedding plans -- the date was set for early February, shortly before Lent -- and how things were going with Caleb as we waited for our food, and once the waitress had brought of our beignets and omelets Angelique said, "Did you ever celebrate Halloween as a boy, Malcolm?"

"We did," I said. "Parties, mostly."

"We're going to throw a house party for the neighborhood this year," Angelique said. "Music and food and games, adults as well as children, costumes optional. Do you think Caleb would like to come?"

"Do you think Mr. Thibodeaux the Younger would let him come?" interjected Rene.

"I don't know," I said to both questions. "Caleb hasn't spent much time around other children lately, though he's made friends with the farm manager's little boy. And Noel's very protective of him."

"If the plan is to get Caleb ready to go to school someday," Angelique said, "being around other children sometimes might help prepare him, even before he's ready to speak again."

"I don't know what the plan is, exactly," I said. "If it's dependent on him deciding to speak again, I may be in New Orleans until he's ready to go to college. I'll ask Noel about the party, and try to convince him it'll be a good idea."

"Try to convince Noel it would be a good idea for him to come, too," said Angelique, and Rene nodded in agreement as his thumb affectionately brushed her shoulder -- a gesture that made me wistful. I was glad for them -- glad that Rene had found a happy life in the wake of the war -- but envious, too, because even if I had a sweetheart we wouldn't be able to trade such gestures with each other.

Angelique added softly, distracting me from this train of thought, "It might be good for all three of you to be out of the house that night," and I gave her a curious look.

"Why do you think so?"

"Oh," she said with a one-shouldered shrug. "I think the distraction would do you all good, is all. Some fun and silliness instead of dwelling on loss."

"I'll have to use that argument with Noel," I said, and the conversation moved on to other things.

-----

When I returned from the city, the rest of the household had returned from church and eaten lunch. I found Noel and Caleb in the sitting room, drawing pictures together as they listened to twangy, old-timey country music on the radio.

Caleb hopped up and ran to me, to show me the new pictures of the candy city he and Noel had drawn. Noel had labeled the buildings things like BANK and CHURCH in his tidy draftsman hand and Caleb had added all the color and decorations, which I duly admired before giving the drawings back.

"I need to talk to Uncle Noel for a few minutes," I said, and Noel looked up from his sketch -- not much different from his building designs, I thought, even if it was drawn in blunt purple crayon -- as Caleb lay on the floor again and started a new picture.

"Do you usually do something for Halloween?" I asked Noel.

He shrugged. "I think children trick-or-treat in the city, but we've never done much out here. The bigger holiday is All Saints, on the first."

"What do you do for All Saints?"

"Take flowers to the family tombs."

"Oh," I said, not sure what sort of questions would follow that. I said, "We would have Halloween parties with costumes and bobbing for apples, and we'd tell ghost stories, and sometimes we'd even put on a spook alley."

"Indeed," Noel said, entirely neutral. Caleb went on coloring, adding a small fluffy gray cat perched on the roof of his building. (This, I feel I should mention, was a reoccurring theme with him.)

"The point is," I said, "I had breakfast with Rene Gaspard. He and his fiancee are throwing a house party for their neighborhood on Halloween, with games for the kids and dancing for the adults, and candy and food for everybody. Costumes optional, so I'm sure a lot of people will be in their street clothes." Noel went on gazing at me as if I were discussing the weather. "We're invited. The three of us."

Caleb dropped his crayon and gave Noel a look that I couldn't quite read -- either he was terrified of the idea, or so excited he didn't know how to react. Noel ruffled Caleb's hair.

"I don't know, Malcolm. I don't know if Caleb is ready for parties, and I'm not fond of them myself."

Caleb turned that look to me, and I decided it meant he wanted to go -- was desperate to go, maybe. Grace and Simon, I suspected, were far more social than Noel.

"Games, though, Noel," I said. "Pin the tail on the donkey, maybe? Blind man's bluff? Bobbing for apples?" Caleb started nodding, and I grinned. "Other kids to play Let's Pretend with?"

Noel looked at Caleb too, and sighed. "If Caleb wants to go, he may," he said. "I'll pass."

"It might be a nice way to work off some steam," I said in my most persuasive tone. "You don't even need to dress up."

"I don't have time for parties, Malcolm."

"You don't make time for parties," I countered, and he sighed. "I'm sure your coworkers will be going to parties themselves that night, or taking their children trick-or-treating. You could swap funny stories in the morning."

Noel huffed, and reached out to pet Tumnus as she pranced across the room to Caleb. She paused to allow it, and then went to Caleb and rubbed her chin on his cheek. From the way she treated him, I often thought she thought Caleb was her kitten.

I said, "You ought to get used to parties, anyway, Noel. The holiday season is coming up. Thanksgiving, Christmas. New Year's Eve," I crooned and reached out myself to play with Noel's hair.

He shivered, ever-so-slightly. "I have never observed Thanksgiving outside of the army, and we don't celebrate Christmas in this house."

Caleb looked up playing with Tumnus at that, frowning.

"I think Thanksgiving is brilliant and the rest of the family would like it," I said, "and you need to celebrate Christmas. There's a child in this house now. Children need Christmas."

Noel raised an eyebrow at me. "You can be very persuasive, Malcolm, but I think you're going to lose this one."

I grinned at him. "It's a long time until Christmas." I said to Caleb, "What about Halloween, peanut? Would you like to go to the party? Maybe dress up as a cowboy?" He had the costume already in his closet, a simple affair of a vest, child-sized ten-gallon hat, sheriff's badge, and popgun in a plastic holster.

He nodded, but then looked thoughtful and picked up one of the coloring books he and Noel had brought to the sitting room -- rarely used, as he preferred to draw his own pictures -- and paged through it. He found what he was looking for and showed the picture to me.

It was a knight. I had to smile.

"You can be a knight if you'd rather," I said, and he hugged the coloring book to his chest, nodding vigorously.

"I'm outnumbered," Noel observed. "You two go and have fun."

Caleb leaned against Noel, lips in a pout. Noel tilted his head, brows furrowed, and then laughed. "Don't try that look on me. I know that look."

Caleb put his arms around Noel's neck and kissed his cheek.

"Help," Noel said to me.

"Nope," I said. "Come to the party with us, Uncle Noel. Please? Please please please?"

Caleb nodded to each 'please' and gave him more kisses.

"We could all dress as knights," I offered, and at the glare Noel turned on me I laughed and said, "Or maybe just Caleb will be a knight and we'll be two regular people. I don't care either way, to be honest. I just want you to be there with us."

Noel scowled, and Caleb scowled right back and pressed their noses together. This made Noel's lips twitch, and he said, "All right, fine," and Caleb hugged him tight with glee.

-----

A few days after Noel returned from Chicago, I received my weekly letter from Mary Kate. As usual she started out with news of Rosemary, the sweetest and most brilliant baby to ever live, and "my sweet George"; then she said,

As you said he might, Noel Thibodeaux called while he was here. He took us out to dinner at the Walnut House (it's inside the Macy's, and much ritzier than you might think for a restaurant inside a department store) though to be honest I think it was because it didn't occur to him we'd be just as happy with ice cream at Margie's, rather than because he was trying to impress us. At any rate, he was just as charming as he was the first time he visited, and truly sweet with Rosemary. I can see why he and Caleb are so devoted to each other, if he is this good with all the children he meets.

He also wanted to know more about you, so I had a marvelous time telling him what a brat you are. I hope this doesn't put him off.

Though seriously, he strikes me as a terribly lonely. I wanted to invite him to stay with us rather than at a hotel, just so he'd have some company in the morning. I didn't, as that would be perhaps too odd for so new an acquaintance, but I did tell him to take care of you and to let you take care of him when we said good night.

So, Mal dear, take care of Noel Thibodeaux. Somebody needs to, and I suspect that somebody best be you.

Love always,

Mary Kate

I tucked the letter away with the rest of her correspondence, thinking about her last admonition. I hadn't told her of the growing affection between Noel and I, but now I wondered if she might understand more than I had previously thought.

I knew Noel was lonely. I knew it as well as I knew Caleb was the center of his world. What I didn't know was why -- why someone so handsome, so kind, so bruised, as Noel would think he had to be alone.

Whatever he was afraid of, whatever fear was holding him back, I wanted to smash it to pieces.

I also didn't know how to go about convincing him he had nothing to fear. I knew he was brave, but there's brave and then there's foolhardy, and fear is the line that separates the two.

Fear can keep a soldier alive. But when you're a civilian again and supposedly safe, fear can paralyze.

I grabbed my pencil and the sketchbook with my comic, and drew Sir Errant and Sir Tristan comparing battle scars. I felt that way with Noel sometimes, though only mine were visible on my skin. Drawing the scene didn't give me any insight into how to help Noel, but as always creating something made my thoughts feel less knotted. It would come to me, I thought. When the time was right, I'd know what to do.

-----

There was a strange sense in the house as October drew on, like an indrawn breath, waiting to exhale.

We had been raised to be skeptical of superstitions, but I was still exposed to them growing up -- particularly the Celtic belief that at Samhain the veil between the living and the dead was so thin it might as well not exist. Given all the activity I had already seen at Fidele, I expected there to be a new event every day leading up to Halloween -- but as if only to be contrary, aside from the occasional bout of me sleepwalking, nothing out of the ordinary occurred.

Caleb was so excited about the Halloween party that he could barely concentrate during school hours, and drew knights and dragons and horses during playtime. To keep him focused we worked on his costume a little bit every day: we got pieces of cardboard that we cut and decorated with Elmer's glue, and then painted silver to look like hammered armor. I painted a gold fleur-de-lis on the breastplate and shield, and Mrs. Bell bought a new feather duster for us to plunder so the helmet could have a crest of yellow feathers.

A few days before Halloween, the costume was finished. Noel and I put Caleb in it to make sure he could move, put the plastic sword around his waist and gave him his hobby horse to be his charger, and he galloped up and down the passages and brandished his sword at the paintings.

From the top of the stairs, Noel watched Caleb gallop about, a smile lurking at the corner of his mouth. I sat on the top step of the staircase nearby, working on another piece of costume, and smiled to myself too.

"Come here," I said. "I have something for you." Noel looked skeptical, but sat on the stair beside me. "Close your eyes." He did so, and I placed a dragon half-mask on his face and tied it at the back of his head. "There."

He laughed and felt the mask. It was simply made, just modeling clay and cardboard that I had painted iridescent green, and tied with black ribbons. His striking eyes looked even more blue as he looked at me through the eye slits.

"And what will you be?"

I picked up another dragon mask, this one painted red. Noel laughed, genuinely, and put it on me.

"I think our story is that we are the dragons he tamed, and now he keeps us as pets," I said as he tied the red ribbons. "We assist him in his crusade against bedtime."

He pushed the mask off his face, making the snout look like it sprouted from his forehead. "As long as I can just wear a T-shirt with this, I'll go along with any story you like."

"Black T-shirts and dungarees should do," I said. I adjusted the mask over my nose. "What do you think?"

"You look very dangerous," Noel said solemnly, but gave me the little squint he used instead of winking. I grinned back, pleased.

Caleb galloped to us and threw himself into Noel's lap. Noel caught him and gave him noisy kisses on his neck. "Careful, peanut," he said and undid the snaps on Caleb's armor. "You don't want to crush your costume before the party."

Caleb sulked a little but still let Noel help him out of his armor, and we took all the pieces to store in the schoolroom until the big day.

Mrs. Bell appeared in the doorway. "Bath time, Caleb."

He looked up at Noel pleadingly, and Noel stooped to kiss his hair. "Mind Mrs. Bell, peanut. We'll play more tomorrow."

Caleb sighed heavily and went to Mrs. Bell, dragging his feet.

"I'll come kiss you good night later," Noel said as Mrs. Bell took Caleb off for his bath, and then leaned against the bookcase, his arms crossed loosely over his chest. He looked at me. "He's okay, isn't he?"

"He's okay," I said. "He's just being a kid."

Noel nodded, though there was a worried set to his mouth. "I'm still not convinced taking him to a party is a good idea. What if he hates it?"

"Then we'll leave early." I moved to lean against the bookcase beside him. "And if you hate it, we'll leave early."

His head lowered, Noel smiled, small but genuine. "Not if Caleb is having a good time," he murmured, and then looked up at me. "And not if you're having a good time, too."

"I won't have any fun if you're not."

He smiled again, then pushed himself off the bookcase. "Well. I have work I should be doing." He started to leave the schoolroom, then paused at the door and turned back to me. "Thank you for making his Halloween so special, Malcolm."

"That's what I'm here for," I said.

Noel smiled again, small, and left. I sighed, told myself to stop being ridiculous, and turned to arrange the dragon masks around Caleb's shield and helm in a more aesthetically pleasing manner.

A few minutes passed -- trying to distract myself made me particular -- when I heard a creak at the door. I turned, ready to make a joke to Noel, but the doorway was empty.

The room was warm but still I shivered. I braced myself for a scream, an apparition, even the pungent smell of burnt sugar -- but instead there was only a whiff of scent, delicate and pretty, as a ghostly fingers brushed my cheek.

Despite the goosebumps on my arms, the touch was comforting. I closed my eyes, and that's when I placed the scent, like the house of my childhood on baking days.

Whoever that was, they smelled of vanilla.

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