Chapter Eighteen - The Halloween Party

Halloween night, we approached Rene's neighborhood slowly and carefully due to the many groups of children out on the streets. Most of the houses in the neighborhood were decorated, some simply with a jack o' lantern or two on their front porch, some elaborately with entire nightmare scenes in their small front yards -- molded plastic skeletons hung from trees like puppets, mock headstones planted in the grass, or in one inventive scene, a woman dressed as a witch who stirred an enormous pot that billowed smoke made by dry ice. The children were dressed as ghosts and witches, with a fairy princess here or a horned demon there. Driving slowly as we were, with the roof of the Jaguar down, we could hear their cheerful cries of "Trick or treat!" when the homeowner answered the doorbell.

Wedged between Noel and I in the front seat of the Jaguar, Caleb watched the children with wide eyes. His hand crept into mine and I gave it a squeeze. "There will be other children at the party," I said, which I had told him before but it never hurt to say it again. "They're Mr. Rene's nieces and nephews, and his friends' children, and they're very nice. And Uncle Noel and I will always be where you can easily find us, if you need to. Okay?"

He squeezed my hand back and nodded. Okay.

Noel found a place to park the Jaguar around the corner from the Gaspard house. We walked down the block, Caleb between us and holding both our hands as Noel carried Caleb's sword and hobby horse, and I carried his shield and our masks. We could hear the music from the party from three houses away, and the house itself was ablaze with light. The front walk was lined with jack o'lanterns, their eyes and toothy mouths flickering with candle light.

A sign pinned to the front door bade us to COME ON IN!!! but we paused first, to get Caleb's sword belted around his waist and for Noel and I to put on our dragon masks. As I tied Noel's mask around his head, he said quietly to me, "And if I need you, shall I come find you too?"

"Always," I said, and we entered the house.

Despite our masks and the sheer number of people inside -- neighbors, friends, Gaspards by the score -- Rene spotted us as we lingered uncertainly by the door. "Sarge!" he cried and came to shake my hand with both of his. "Welcome, welcome. Happy Halloween." He beamed down at Caleb, and Caleb gave him a cautious smile in return as he clung to Noel's trouser leg.

I said, "Rene, this is Noel Thibodeaux and Caleb Thibodeaux," and he shook hands with Noel, too.

"Welcome, Mr. Thibodeaux, young Master Thibodeaux. Come on in. Do you want to eat first or socialize a bit first?"

"Socialize, I would think," I said, and looked at Noel for confirmation.

"Caleb may need something to eat soon," Noel said. "It's about our usual suppertime."

"Of course," said Rene and called over his shoulder, "Angelique!" As she came out of the party to join us, dressed in the brightly-colored skirts and scarves of a fortune teller, he explained, "We have a meal arranged for the children and buffet for the adults. Everyone should get fed before much longer."

Angelique joined us, slipping her arm through Rene's, and I was glad to see she didn't react with the usual start when she saw me. Rene said to her, "Noel and Caleb Thibodeaux, ma belle. I think Caleb would like to play some games before we get out supper, don't you?"

"I think he would," she said and held out her hand. "Will you come with me, Caleb?"

He looked at Noel, and Noel said, "We'll come get you when it's time to go home, peanut. Or you can always ask Miss Angelique to find us if you need us, like Mr. Malcolm said."

Caleb hitched his shield on his arm and put his hand in Angelique's, and she took him into a hallway off the main set of rooms. "Drinks now," Rene said to us. "Come on. The beer is cold and the music's hot." He guided us into the party too, stopping often to say to other guests, "You remember Malcolm Carmichael, oui? This is Noel Thibodeaux," so we could shake hands and say hello.

In the courtyard behind the house, the party was in full swing. People danced to a zydeco band, or ate from paper plates piled high with food from a long buffet table. The air was rich with the scent of barbecue on the grill, and at both ends of the table were washtubs filled with ice and bottles of beer. It was still warm despite it being the end of October, so different from the chilly autumns I remembered in San Francisco. Many of the adults around us were in costume -- southern belles and dandies, witches, scarecrows, cats -- but I was glad to see that Noel and I were not the only ones who had opted to costume ourselves as simply as possible, if not wear street clothes outright.

Rene ushered Noel and I to one of the little tables set up around the courtyard, and fetched the three of us bottles of beer. "Salute," he said and we replied, "Salute," and the three of us clinked our bottles together before we drank.

"What do you do, Mr. Thibodeaux?" Rene said.

"I'm a water engineer."

"Oh," Rene said and looked at me helplessly.

Noel explained, "My company designs and maintains water supply systems, mostly for housing developments in the south and midwest. We want to expand to the west, eventually, and I'd love to get my hands on a project like that -- it's easy where water is abundant, but where it's scarce but people still want to live? That's a real challenge."

I tilted my head, and Rene and I smiled at each other. Noel frowned in response. "What?"

"I like it when you talk about things that interest you," I said and had a swig of beer. Noel got that unsettled look that meant he didn't know how to react, and had a swig too.

He said to Rene, "What do you do, Mr. Gaspard?"

"I work at my papa's garage. One thing I did well in in the war was keep our vehicles running, even German-made ones."

"Rene was always the best of us at hot-wiring," I said.

Noel nodded and looked away as he sipped his beer.

"Noel was in the Pioneer Troops," I told Rene.

"Merde, son," said Rene, looking at Noel now with admiration.

"Yeah," Noel murmured, looking now at his boots.

"You should have worn your uniform tonight," Rene told him. "Your medals would have the girls swooning at your feet."

"I--" He looked at me. "Um--"

Rene laughed. "Well, whoever you want to make swoon."

Noel glanced at me, and then looked away again as he drank.

"Well," Rene said, rising, "if you both are settled, I will get back to being host. See you later, oui?"

"See you later," I said. He chucked my shoulder and went to another group of guests, slapping two of them on the back as he joined them. I loved seeing him like this -- happy, social, in his element.

Noel and I stayed at the table for a while in companionable silence. Every now and then, we were joined for a few minutes by members of the Gaspard family or friends Rene had introduced to me at the Apple Barrel, but mostly we were left to listen to the music and enjoy our drinks.

Noel had said little. He greeted people easily enough, but did not participate in small talk -- it was not something he liked doing, I had noticed that before. With the dragon mask pushed up to his forehead so he could drink easily, his eyes scanned the crowd before they fixed on something innocuous like his boots whenever someone joined us.

Finally, I said, gesturing to the girls clustered near us who had been eyeing us and whispering to each other all evening, "Noel, ask someone to dance."

"I don't know anyone well enough."

"I don't think that matters much."

He looked at me skeptically, and then pulled the dragon mask back over his face and went to the group of girls. They all looked hopeful, and while it was too noisy for me to hear what any of them said, after a few minutes of back-and-forth Noel took a girl who was dressed like a medieval princess out onto the dance floor.

I exhaled, glad he was taken care of, and as I sipped my beer I realized now I was left at loose ends. I couldn't dance, which meant I was of no interest to the girls. Most of the party-goers were paired off or clustered in groups of friends, and while I was friendly with many of them, I was not friends with any.

I saw Dorian in line at the buffet table and started to get up to join him, when I saw that he and the man beside him were whispering and smiling to each other the way that new lovers do. I sighed, dropped my finished beer into a bucket marked EMPTY BOTTLES, and went into the house to see if there was something there for me to do.

 

***

 

I had a peek on the children, to see how Caleb was doing. Evidence of their supper -- watermelon rinds, a few leftover burgers, and bowls that held the crumbs of potato chips -- was still on a small round table, and they were playing now games: one of Rene's sisters and her sweetheart had tied doughnuts to strings and hung them from a pole that they held just above the children's heads, and the children were trying to eat them without using their hands. There was a lot of giggling, and Caleb looked so happy that I quietly backed away from the door before I distracted him from the game.

In the sitting room, away from the band, Mrs. Gaspard sat at the upright piano and played for a group gathered around to sing. Rene was deep in conversation with some of his neighbors; he noticed me ambling about and gestured for me to join them, but I waved him off and went back outside.

I wasn't particularly hungry yet, but the scent of barbecue was tantalizing enough to make me consider getting a plate of food. The trouble was, of course, holding the plate and my cane at the same time, and I decided it wasn't worth the trouble.

Most of the tables were occupied by this time, but there was an empty chair at the table where Dorian and his friend sat. I paused, not wanting to intrude, when he saw me and waved me over. "Malcolm! Come sit with us."

I took the empty chair, and Dorian wiped his mouth with a napkin, beaming. "Malcolm Carmichael, this is Christopher Timms."

"Mr. Timms," I said and we reached over the table to shake hands. He was a tanned, dark-haired fellow, handsome in a regal sort of way, with a soft voice and a Boston accent. Neither of them had bothered with costumes.

"Christopher was one of our mechanics during the war," Dorian told me. "He's going to Loyala."

"Are you in law school too?" I asked him.

"I'm studying to be a pharmacist," he said. "Are you a student, Mr. Carmichael?"

"I'm a private tutor," I said. "School's a bit behind me now. My student is Caleb Thibodeaux, one of the children playing with Danielle Gaspard inside."

"I saw his costume," Dorian said. "He makes a fine knight."

"Thank you," I said. I lowered the dragon mask, shoved out of the way all evening so I could drink easily, back into place. "Noel and I are his pet dragons."

Dorian and Christopher both laughed, and I suppose the mask and the laughter got Noel's attention because I heard Dorian exclaim, "Noel, do join us!"

"Thank you," Noel said and sat at the table beside me, and there were a few minutes of jostling and introductions. "I saw Malcolm had his mask on." He lowered his as well, and put his arm around my shoulders.

"I wish I'd thought to bring my camera," Dorian said. "I'd love to get a picture of you three in costume."

"You'll have to come by Fidele again sometime," Noel said.

Dorian's eyes met mine, and he smiled a tiny bit. I suppose it was obvious to someone who had seen us together before, that we were more comfortable with each other than we had been. I smiled back a tiny bit myself and leaned back against Noel's arm.

"What's Fidele?" Christopher asked Noel.

"The family plantation," Noel said. "It's more of a farm now, really. We've sold a lot of the land to the forestry department of Louisiana Polytechnic."

"No more sharecroppers picking cotton?"

"Sugar," Noel said. "No, no more sharecroppers. There haven't been any since I was a boy."

"How fortunate for them."

Noel said mildly, "The world's moved on," and said to me, "Are you hungry, Malcolm? I'll get you a plate."

"Yes, please," I said, and Noel nodded and left the table.

"Noel Thibodeaux is a decent man, Chris," Dorian said quietly.

"People act like the Civil War never happened down here," Christopher replied. "It's not the antebellum south anymore, but you'd never know it with plantations still around."

"It's like he said," I said. "The world's moved on. Fidele pays its laborers a good wage. I've seen the books."

Christopher snorted and sipped his beer.

Dorian sighed and said, "Come on, let's dance."

Wordlessly, Christopher rose, and they went out onto the dance floor. This surprised me less than it would have two months ago -- the Gaspards did not limit their friendship to anyone, and Dorian and Christopher were not even the only men dancing together even in this little crowd.

Noel returned a few minutes after Christopher and Dorian left, with two plates piled high with barbecue, corn on the cob, and slices of chocolate cake. "Mr. Timms didn't want to sit with a plantation owner, I take it," he said as he set one of the plates in front of me.

"I'm sorry about that."

He shrugged. "It happens. Yankees." He had stuck two more bottles of beer in his pocket, and gave one to me.

I smiled to myself as I took my plate. "I don't count as a Yankee anymore, I suppose?"

"As you like to remind me, you're not a Yankee," he answered, smiling at me in his most genuine way. "You're a cowboy." He bit into his corn on the cob.

A stray kernel stuck to his chin, and I reached over to wipe it off with my forefinger. Halfway into the reach, my hand shifted and I wiped it off with the pad of my thumb, instead. Noel's eyes closed and his lips parted, and he rubbed his mouth against my wrist for just a moment.

"You've got to stop doing that, Malcolm," he muttered and sat back in his chair. "Eat your food."

I grinned at him and dug in. "You're glad you came even so, right?"

"I am," Noel said. "It's a nice party." He looked back at the house. "I still want to check on Caleb, though. I'm forcing myself not to."

"I had a look on him earlier," I said, "and he seemed to be having fun. But if you need to--"

He shook his head. "I should let him be. He's proved he knows how to take care of himself if he needs to."

"Let's hope he doesn't headbutt anyone tonight, though."

Noel huffed. "Let's hope."

We ate, watching the dancers and enjoying the music, and when our plates were empty except for the last crumbs of cake, Noel leaned back in his chair, a thoughtful expression on his face. He looked from the floor to me a few times, and then he stood and held out his hand to me.

"What?" I said.

"Dance with me."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"We're ridiculous already," Noel said. "Come on."

I held up my cane. "And the third wheel?"

"We'll make it work. Don't leave me standing here, cowboy."

I sighed and put my hand in his, and we went out onto the dance floor.

Before the war, I loved to dance. I could do the lindy hop with the best of them, even though I preferred to dance with whoever I was going home with that night than any of the girls I partnered with. Since the war, of course, I had been too busy learning to walk again to think about dancing.

But here at the Gaspards', surrounded by people who loved to dance and didn't stop anyone else who did too, maybe I wouldn't make a fool of myself -- and I trusted Noel not to make a fool out of me.

The music had slowed down a bit as the night went on, and the current piece had a waltz tempo that brought more of the older folks out onto the floor.

Noel said, "Put your arms around my neck."

I did, though I warned him, "You'll have to help keep me upright."

"Pretty sure I can do that," he said as he put his arms around my waist, my cane in his grasp. We danced, slowly, as far as you can call swaying together dancing.

After a verse or so, I lay my head on his shoulder and closed my eyes. One of his hands left my waist and lay on the back of my neck, and he stroked my hair.

I whispered, "Whatever's gotten into you, I like it."

He chuckled and didn't answer. I knew what it was, anyway -- no one knew him here, not really, and he could hide behind a mask if he wanted to even though the dragon mask had spent most of the night shoved up to his forehead rather than covering his face. No matter -- it meant he felt safe enough to be himself for once, not the war hero, not the distinguished citizen, not the respectable son, but just a man who liked men and liked to dance.

The song ended and I lifted my head. Noel gave me my cane. "Malcolm," he began, but then a pair of hands clapped me on the shoulders.

"Sarge!" Rene said. "Part of the evening's entertainment is ma belle Angelique telling fortunes. Would either of you like your palms read?"

"All right," Noel said, his face going back to its usual neutral expression.

I sighed and said, "Sure," and we went with Rene into the house.

 

***

 

Angelique had set up a table in the kitchen and decorated it with a brightly-patterned tablecloth, fabric flowers, sugar skulls, and a crystal ball that looked antique enough to have been brought from the Old Country. The woman whose palm she was currently reading was blushing and laughing, and the man next to her watched the proceedings eagerly, as if the future Angelique saw included him, as well.

Finally Angelique folded the woman's hand closed and the woman said, "Thank you, cherie," as she got up from the table.

"Bon chance," Angelique replied, and then caught sight of me. Her smile disappeared and she pressed her lips together uncertainly.

Rene didn't seem to notice. "Ma belle, I have a few more customers for you."

"Who would like to go first?" she asked.

Noel and I looked at each other, and Noel said, "I will," and sat in the empty chair beside Angelique. I took the other, and Noel held out both his hands. "Which one would you like?"

"That depends on whether you want insight into your life or if you want to learn what your future holds," said Angelique, as she picked up his left hand. She studied it with a faint frown.

"It looks like you've already chosen," Noel said.

She glanced up at him. "This is the hand that tells what you're born with -- the strengths and weaknesses that make up your character." She put his hand on the table and smoothed her palm over it. "You've got long fingers and palm, which means you're associated with water."

"I'm a water engineer," he said dryly.

"It's symbolic," Angelique said patiently. "If you're associated with water, it means you're creative, moody, most comfortable with your own company, and spend most of your time just quietly going about your business."

Noel looked at her for a long moment, and then gave a small nod.

Angelique stroked his palm with her thumbs. "You've had a hard time, emotionally," she said. "Your heart is very tender and easily broken. As a result, you don't give your love freely." Her thumb brushed a line that when from his palm to nearly touch his wrist. "Everything you have, you've made for yourself."

Noel watched her, expressionless, but his eyes were bright as if his emotions were threatening to overcome him.

"You've got some big decisions to make soon," Angelique said, still gazing at his hand. "It's against your nature to rush into them, but I think your intuition won't lead you astray."

She released his hand. Noel curled it, not quite a fist, and exhaled slowly. "Thank you." He swallowed.

"You're welcome, Mr. Thibodeaux," she said gently and patted his hand, and then turned to me.

I held out my right hand. "I think I'd like to know my future, as long as it's nothing too shocking."

"It rarely is," Angelique said as she took hold of my hand in both of hers. Noel watched her, his hands folded under his chin.

I said quietly, "I can't help but notice you're not terribly comfortable around me."

"Any friend of Rene's is a friend of mine," Angelique replied mildly, not looking up. "Though I am sad you and Dorian didn't work out."

"It must have been fate," I said lightly.

Angelique glanced up at me, then frowned at my hand. "You're fire," she said. "You act on instinct, and not always wisely. You're often controlled by your self-interest."

"Fair enough," I said.

"You're also selfish when it comes to love," she went on. "You like lovers who reflect well on you, even when the choice is unwise. But despite your faults, your family and friends love you deeply, and will always welcome you back when you go to them."

I cleared my throat. "That's my future? My family will always take care of me?"

"Your future," Angelique said in an absent sort of way, "is written by your past." She started to speak, then looked up at me, still holding my hand. "You died."

"Anyone who looks at me can see that."

"No," she said, "I don't mean that you were just terribly injured. You died. Not for long -- but just long enough."

Across the table, Noel shifted but didn't speak. I whispered, "Yes."

Her eyes searched my face. "They said it was a miracle you survived, didn't they? Another man would have died before the medics found him, but you -- you weren't done yet."

"I--" I swallowed.

Rene said, "Sarge?"

"It changed you," Angelique said, her voice calm, her expression compassionate. "The veil is thinner for you now than it was before the war, and than it is for most people. You're like a portal now -- the dead are drawn to you because they know you see them. You see them everywhere."

I swallowed again and nodded. Noel lowered his hands, his eyebrows furrowed.

"But of course the angry ones won't hurt you," Angelique said, "because Zachary is with you and is still looking out for you, just as he always has."

My eyes stung. I managed to say, "That's what you see?"

"Not in your palm," she said. "I see it almost every time I look at you. I've seen Zachary standing with you. He told me everything."

Rene squatted down beside me. "Sarge," he whispered, "I had no idea."

"I don't like to talk about it." I withdrew my hand from Angelique's grasp. My future, even for play, seemed irrelevant. "There's not really anything I can say, is there? My dead brother is still looking out for me. It's less reassuring than you might think. Thank you, Angelique."

I rose from the table as Angelique began, "Malcolm -- oh, don't be upset--"

"I'm not," I assured her and went to the front porch, away from the noise and press of people. I leaned against one of the pillars and forced myself to breathe deep and slow, staving off the panic that threatened to rise.

>> Chapter Nineteen