Chapter Nineteen - Halloween Night

The door opened and closed behind me and I braced myself to pretend everything was fine, just fine -- until Noel slipped his arms around my waist from behind and rested his chin on my shoulder. I tipped back my head and closed my eyes, soothed by the brush of his breath against my cheek.

"I thought you might need a friend."

I choked out, "Thanks."

For a minute or two we stood there, his strength holding me up, until I said, "Angelique is right." My voice was thick. "I died in Germany."

He pressed our temples together.

"Just for a few seconds," I said. "In Hurtgen Forest, when I was shot. I remember it. I remember knowing I was going to die. I remember being at peace with it --" Noel tightened his arms around me again and I realized how badly I was shaking. "And then Zachary came to me," I said. "He'd been dead for a year by then. Died in the Pacific. He never fired a gun but they killed him anyway. He was my hero and he died."

"I'm sorry," Noel whispered. "I'm sorry you lost him."

"But he came to me then," I said. "I was dying and he came to me. He said I wasn't done yet. He said I had to hold on. So I did, and I lived, and I came home, and now Angelique says Zachary is with me and I know it's true, and she said the dead seek me out because they know I can see them and I know that's true, too."

Noel was quiet, still holding me tight. He said, "Let's sit," and drew me to the porch swing. I eased myself into it and put my cane aside, then leaned forward to cover my face with my hands.

Noel felt in his pocket, and then gave me a handkerchief. I laughed damply and wiped my face.

Noel sat beside me in silence until my breathing calmed and the shaking stopped, his hand rubbing light circles into my back. "Fireflies," he remarked. I looked up -- tiny spots of light danced among the oaks and cypresses. 

"We don't have them in California," I said, crumpling the damp handkerchief in my hand. "Too dry, I think."

"I never saw them in the Pacific. I missed them."

"I missed the smell of the ocean," I said. "I'd never been so far inland before until we got to France." I took a deep breath. "I tried to tell Mary Kate about Zachary once. She thought I was just having vivid dreams because I can't let Zachary go. I wish he were resting in peace, I really do. If he's staying with me, it's his choice, not mine."

"He's your big brother. Of course he wants to look after you."

I nodded and blew my nose, and watched the quiet street. Trick-or-treating had stopped hours before, and candles burned low in their jack o'lanterns.

I said, "Just like you and Simon."

Noel rocked the porch swing with his foot. He said simply, "Yes."

Well. There it was. 

I said, "That's him playing the piano at night, isn't it? I thought it was you, but it's not. It’s him."

"The music sounds like him. I assume it's him." He paused. "He loved music so much, even when we were kids. He figured out how notes go together when we were still tiny. Emmanuel wouldn't pay for lessons, of course, but Simon found people to teach him in the city. He'd write me letters about sneaking into speakeasies and cat houses, and then he'd take me when I was home over the summer."

"Cat houses, huh?" I said, and he huffed, a faint smile on his lips.

"You want to learn to play jazz, you have to go where jazz is being played."

I smiled too, but said, "Who is he protecting you from? Emmanuel?" Noel continued rubbing my back, slow and easy. "The other ghosts of Fidele?"

"I'm more afraid of Emmanuel than I am of any ghost," Noel said. "Even though I know he's an old man and can't hurt me anymore. It's a hard habit to break."

"But there are ghosts in Fidele. The woman I saw in the window, the one with the portrait -- and the other woman, the dark shape, who screams and jumps from the staircase --"

"That one has been around for as long as I remember."

"You've heard her. Seen her."

He nodded. "Ever since I was a baby. Mrs. Bell can tell you about it -- there were times she found me giggling or acting like someone was playing with me when no one was there." He studied me. "I do recall you saying previously that you didn't believe in ghosts."

"I don't. I believe in what I can see." I took another deep breath. "I saw my brother as I lay dying in Hurtgen Forest. I saw dead boys in the hospital in Virginia, just sitting on their made beds like they didn't know they had died. I saw ghosts of students at Goodwin who'd died a hundred years ago. I saw Oliver Davenport's dead grandfather reading in his study. I saw the ghost of my -- my best friend who died when we were kids, still in his parents' house. Just on the street, these faces, these people--" I had to stop and cover my face again.

Noel leaned against me, his arm around me, and rested his cheek on my shoulder. When I was calm enough to speak again, he said, "Even angry ones, like Angelique said?"

"Sometimes they're angry. They want to be seen. They want someone to acknowledge them, but they never stay near me long. I guess she's right about that, too, that Zachary drives them off."

"Our ghost scratches you." He touched my side lightly, where I'd shown him the scratches before. "I'm sorry about that."

"I guess he can't do everything."

"She scratches me, too." He lifted his shirt to show me a set of four scratches on his side, finger-width and red.

I touched them lightly, then smoothed down his shirt. "Who do you think she is?"

"When I was a child, I thought she was my mother." I leaned back at that, and he slid his arm around my shoulders. He said, "Grace thought it was Charlotte. Charlotte's is a sad tale -- she went mad, tried to kill her baby, and then killed herself."

"Rene told me about that story. So it's true?"

"Oh, yes, it's true." He said, like it was a relief to finally tell someone, "Sometimes she's just a presence -- a feeling in a room of cold or sadness. Or sounds -- footsteps, whispers, sobbing. That scream and the sound of falling, like you heard. Sometimes she's a shape, like you saw in Caleb's room. And sometimes she's -- I just know she's there. Watching me."

"I've felt that too. Just someone watching." We swung slowly in silence. I said, "Grace knew?"

"Grace knew everything about Fidele. She'd been friends with Simon since childhood. Her father was the farm manager until he passed, and then her mother passed a few months later. That was about a year after Grace and Simon married. They lived long enough to see Caleb born, at least.

"Grace was so clever," Noel went on, admiration in his tone. "Smarter than Simon and I put together. She loved the Thibodeaux history. She read everything she could get her hands on, old letters, newspaper clippings, parish records, local histories -- she was figuring out truth from rumor for years, and found something that confirmed the story about Charlotte. It was probably lost in the fire."

I nodded slowly. It made sense -- Charlotte had died under violent enough circumstances to create a ghost, if the stories were correct. And now she was haunting the house, hurting Noel, frightening Caleb. I scrubbed my hands over my face again.

"That's why you didn't want to bring Caleb to Fidele," I said. "You knew about the ghost and you didn't want him to be exposed to her."

"I wanted to keep her away from him as long as I could." Noel rocked the porch swing with his foot. "There was something else that Grace figured out. I didn't believe it when she told me, but I believe it now."

I looked at him, waiting for him to continue.

Noel stared out at the street. "Charlotte cursed the family that anyone who marries into it dies violently and too young."

"A curse, Noel," I said.

"You've seen the family Bible," Noel said. "You've seen the graves. Every woman who marries a Thibodeaux has died before her time. I think Simon and Grace only lived as long as they did because they lived in the city instead of at the house. They wouldn't even stay overnight."

"And then one night they did," I said.

"They were visiting Emmanuel," Noel said, "and there was a bad storm. He didn't want them driving through the bayou in that weather so they stayed the night, went back to the city in the morning, and that night--" He stopped, swallowed hard, and said, "That night was the fire."

I put my arm over his shoulders and pulled him to me. He leaned close with a sigh. I kissed his hair and patted his back, and finally said, "Well, you can't marry me, so that settles that problem."

He huffed, startled. "Malcolm--"

"If all it takes is marrying into the family, then whatever we do, it won't matter. We can't get married. We can just fuck around."

Noel gazed at me, then back out at the street. "I prefer to keep my partners short-term. This is why. Even before I knew about the curse, I knew I couldn't endanger anyone by loving them."

I rocked the swing slowly. "You don't have to love me to fuck me."

Noel laughed again, quiet and tinged with sadness. "Shut up."

"Make me." I knocked my shoulder against his, and he knocked me right back.

"You're good for Caleb." He looked at me. "I am not going to take any chances with you."

"You spent the entire war taking chances."

"That's different. That's just me. I won't take chances with other people."

I sighed slowly. "I won't take chances with you, either." Still, I took his hand, and he wove our fingers together.

"I'll find a way to get Caleb out of Fidele," Noel said. "You should find someone you can have fun with. Don't think about me."

I whispered, "I can't."

"You can't have fun with someone else?" he asked, smiling.

"I can't not think about you," I said, not smiling at all.

Noel's smile changed to the one I liked best, the one that crinkled the corners of his eyes and little more. He looked down at our hands. "I'm not going to just fuck you," he said quietly. "It's too late for that."

I was too dumbstruck to answer -- and was spared saying anything when the door opened and Angelique poked her head out.

"Malcolm? Noel? Are you all right?"

"We're all right," Noel said and pulled his hand from mine. "I think I should find Caleb. It's about his bedtime." He went into the house.

Angelique started to follow him, and then turned and came out to me. "And you? Do you forgive me?"

"Of course I do. Mostly I'm glad that you don't dislike me because I remind Rene of the war."

"Oh, cher," she said and cupped my face in her palm. "If I wanted to dislike you, I'm sure I could find a legitimate reason." She patted my cheek and went back inside.

I stayed on the porch, feeling weirdly adrift and relieved at once. It was freeing to not have Zachary a secret anymore, and to know that the sounds I'd been hearing, the shapes I'd seen, even the scratches I'd received, weren't signs I was losing my mind.

On the other hand, it also meant knowing how trapped Noel was -- not just by Emmanuel's threats but by his family's history, by the house itself.

What I needed to unravel all of this were the letters and papers Grace had found -- and like Noel had said, they all had probably been lost in the fire.

Noel came out with Caleb half-asleep on his shoulder, a small fabric bag of treats hanging from his bent elbow. "Ready to go, Malcolm?"

"I'm ready." I got to my feet and touched Caleb's back. "Did you have fun tonight, little man?"

Caleb nodded and sleepily patted my cheek. We said good night to Rene and Angelique, walked to the car, and drove back to Fidele.

 

***

 

Caleb was sound asleep by the time we reached Fidele. Noel carried him upstairs to put him to bed, and I took the pieces of our costumes to the schoolroom. Caleb would want to play knights again, I thought, and maybe Noel and I would be his dragons.

We had said little on the drive home. This was not unusual for Noel, but still I had been grateful for it. I was raw from an overabundance of emotion. It was one thing to grieve someone -- it was quite another to have it confirmed that they were always with me.

I said softly, as I hung the dragon masks from coat-hooks by their ribbons, "I'm not going to change who I am just because you're watching me, Zack. But I am glad you're still around. I am."

I felt the faintest of breezes at the back of my neck, and smiled to myself.

There was a tap on the schoolroom door, and I turned to see Noel standing in the doorway. "Caleb's tucked in. He didn't even wake up when I put him into his pajamas."

"Little man had a busy day," I observed.

"So did big man," Noel said and came to me, adding, "You look tired," as he put his arms around my shoulders.

"I feel wrung out," I admitted as I leaned against him. "But the night's not over yet, is it?"

"I don't know," Noel said. "I don't remember Halloween being any more or less haunted than any other night when I was a child. I think you should go to bed and whatever our ghosts decide to do, it can wait until morning to deal with."

"Are you going to sleep?"

"I'm going to try."

We gazed at each other. He had shaved before the party but his five o'clock shadow had returned, dark along his jaw. It was all I could do not to rub my cheek against his, wanting the scrape and bite.

"Come on," he said and steered me out of the school room and down the passage. "Emmanuel likes to get to the cemetery right after breakfast."

"What exactly are we going to do?"

"Exactly? We're going to walk to the cemetery and lay flowers on some graves, and I'm going to try to keep Caleb from falling apart."

"So I'll keep you from falling apart," I said, and he huffed.

"I'm sure I will at some point. Just not in front of Emmanuel." We stopped at my door, his arm still around my shoulders.

"Well," I said, "thanks for walking me home."

Noel smiled but didn't release me. "Thanks for making me come to the party."

"Thanks for coming with me."

I don't know which of us moved first. Perhaps neither -- perhaps it was the same moment, when we were already so close and he was holding me, and it was perfectly natural to close that space between us.

We kissed like time would never end -- my hands in his hair, his arms around me, the dark passage lit only by the chandelier in the vestibule -- and though the kiss was as full of need and desire as kisses between us ever were, there was something new to it, too, something sweet and tender, like saying "I'll wait for you." 

The kiss only ended when we heard footsteps on the stairs -- Mrs. Bell, turning off the lights on her way to bed. Noel gave me a pleading look, and I nodded and slipped into my room, leaving the door ajar.

"Mr. Noel," Mrs. Bell said. "I didn't realize you were home already."

"I just put Caleb to bed," Noel said. 

"Did he have a good time at the party?"

"He did. We all did."

"Oh, I'm so glad. Has Mr. Malcolm gone to bed?"

"He has. By the way, Caleb was given a bag of candy that I've put in the school room."

"Maybe we ought to put it in the kitchen so I can dole it out after his lunchtime."

"That's a good idea."

Footsteps to the school room, and then down the stairs again. I lay on my bed with my hand on my forehead, the need to protect Noel from the many threats against him warring with the need to hold and touch and comfort.

This was a new and strange sensation. My desire for him had been a constant gnaw ever since we met, but this -- this felt like a small and tender thing, driven by something other than lust that I couldn't put a name to yet. I wanted him in my bed but I knew I would have been satisfied with him simply sleeping beside me, where I could reach out and touch him when he grew restless or if he cried out in the night. Curse or no, I wanted to show him he was cherished and needed and safe.

Frustrating. All of this -- something -- with nowhere to go.

Despite this -- despite wanting to crawl into his bed and hold him tight until dawn -- I got ready for bed like every other night and lay my body down. I was weary enough from everything that had happened at the party to not even want to smoke a joint. If any ghosts wanted my attention, they'd have to wake me up to get it.

With that rebellious thought in my head, I turned off the lights and closed my eyes, my cane in its usual place at the side of the bed. 

One moment I was lying awake, thinking about Noel and Caleb and the best way to handle All Saints -- the next, I was not in my bed, not in my room.

I was in a small bed, with sheets of soft linen and a feather pillow under my head. My body ached but felt lighter than it had. My skin was sticky with summer heat, and against my breast slept a child -- hours old, at most, washed of the muck of birth, with a head full of dark hair and his father's sharp cheekbones. His skin was lighter than mine -- a true quadroon, maybe even light enough to pass when it came time for him to make his way in the world.

His father -- handsome, tall, clever; he had won my heart without purchasing my body -- appeared in the doorway of my little room and stared down at the child. He wore his riding cloak and boots, hastily pulled on over breeches and his nightshirt. "Is it a boy?" he asked in old-fashioned French as he came toward me. "Does he live?"

"It is a boy," I said. "Your son." I held him out, proud, pleased -- the little Parisian fille he had married could give him no such gift. My prayers would be answered, I was certain. He would return to me. He would give me back his heart.

He took my child from my arms. He stared down at the sleeping boy's face, his own face a mix of joy and wonder -- or so I thought, as that was all I felt.

And then he turned, my child still in his arms, and walked out of the room.

For a moment I could not move, so stunned was I -- and then I threw back the bed linens and struggled to get myself upright. 

I staggered after him and screamed his name. "Achille!" The sun had set while I labored and slept, but the horizon was alight with fire. They were burning the sugar cane fields, to clear them for the next planting.

I screamed, "Achille!" as he walked down the path to his waiting mount, a big chestnut stallion. "Achille!"

The air was thick with smoke and the scent of burning sugar. My throat -- my eyes -- stung with it, with grief and betrayal.

"Achille! Give me back my baby!"

I tried to run after him but his house man grabbed me and held me back as he disappeared from view. I screamed and screamed, "Achille! Achille! Give me back my baby!" until my voice was hoarse, and father and child were long gone.

 

***

 

I woke, the taste of smoke still in my mouth, anger and grief still in my heart -- and promptly crumpled to the hard wood floor.

I was not in Germany -- always my first thought when I woke from a nightmare. Nor was I a Negro woman from a long-ago century in a little house on the edge of the sugar cane fields. It was 1951 and I was lying on the floor of a passage in the plantation house Fidele.

The dream was already fading as I pulled myself up and used the wall to support myself as I made my way back to my bedroom. I remembered a betrayed woman and burning fields, and the heat of a summer night. I remembered a name.

I grabbed my cane, a candlestick, and a dressing gown, and despite my aching body, despite it being so dark I knew dawn was only a few hours away, I went downstairs to the library and the enormous family Bible. As usual, it was open to the family tree in the front; at the top, as I remembered, was the name Achille Thibodeaux.

The woman in my nightmare was not Charlotte Thibodeaux. I knew that as surely as I knew I was Malcolm Carmichael. I didn't know her name but I knew this -- Achille had taken her child, and this betrayal cut her so deep she was still making the family pay.

As I stood there, trying to make sense of what I had dreamed, I heard a rustling sort of thump, like a book falling off a shelf. I remembered this sound -- it had happened before, the first time I explored the library, and as had happened last time when I went looking for the source of the sound, I found a leather-bound book with the title of Ledger, so old the gold of the embossing had worn away.

I had skimmed through it back in September. It had given me a picture of the early days of Fidele -- land and slaves bought and sold, tons of sugar processed, buildings constructed, even clothing laundered and groceries purchased -- but had told me little of the family situation. That, I now knew, was lost in the fire that had killed Grace and Simon. I had a family tree and a ledger, which gave me nothing but bare facts.

Enough had happened since then, though, that when I picked up the book I was not surprised to find the air around the shelf was cold. Someone wanted me to read this. Someone, I suspected, like the woman I had been in my dream. Her story was in here. I just had to dig it out.

I heard the grandfather clock upstairs chime three times. The witching hour, some would say. And again I was not surprised to hear faint piano music, soft and dreamy and not of this world.

>> Chapter Twenty