Chapter Twenty-One - A Promise

Noel and I spent the rest of the afternoon amusing -- or distracting -- Caleb; playing outside, reading together, drawing pictures. Since he had napped before lunch, he didn't need another in the afternoon. Instead, we spent an hour listening to classical music on the radio in the sitting room while I read a children's version of Arthurian tales out loud.

I thought Noel would slip away at this point, but instead he sat on the other side of Caleb on the sofa and stroked his hair when Caleb leaned against him, smiling to himself when I did voices for the characters.

At supper, Emmanuel scowled more than usual, and he flicked his gaze between Noel and me repeatedly all through the meal. We both had changed clothes and washed up as soon as we got back to the house, but I suppose there was something different about us enough for someone looking for it to notice. Did we look at each other more affectionately, speak with more gentleness, let our hands linger when we touched? Perhaps we did. But to me, we acted as we always did, friendly to each other but more concerned with Caleb.

After supper was eaten and Caleb was put to bed, Noel and I met in the library with our papers and books. Noel had reports to analyze and I had vocabulary sheets to make, to keep up with Caleb's growing reading ability in both French and English. 

We worked in silence for a while except for the usual crackle of the fire in the fireplace and the evening rain tapping on the window. I put down my pencil when I finished the drawing of a manticore -- today's vocabulary theme was animals, and I'd added some creatures from our Arthur stories for a little fun -- and rubbed my eyes, feeling the weight of the day.

Noel looked up, the lamplight glinting off his reading glasses. They made him look scholarly, like he was about to expound on the theme of Cogito ergo sum or quote Omar Khayyám. "Long day," he remarked.

"Yeah." I began to put my pencils in order by color. "Noel. There's something I've been thinking about today."

Noel looked alarmed. "Malcolm, not here--"

"No, not about that. Something else. Have you ever noticed how none of your grandfathers remarried after their wives died?"

Noel exhaled slowly, relaxing. "I have. So did Grace."

"Is that why she thought the family is cursed?"

"It's how we know the family is cursed," Noel said. "It's a lesson each generation has had to learn for themselves."

"One that Simon thought he had escaped."

"I thought he had, too." He picked up his mechanical pencil again and rolled it between his fingers. "I understand it, though. If I ever loved someone enough to want to spend my life with them, I wouldn't try to replace them after they died."

"And that's a Thibodeaux trait, isn't it," I said. "Even your father. For all that he dismisses her, he loved your mother so much he never remarried."

An unreadable expression crossed Noel’s face -- something like regret, I thought, and something like sorrow. "I don't know," he said. "It might be love. It might be shame."

"Let's say it was love," I said. "Maybe a misguided love, given how he took out his grief on you, but love, nonetheless. What would the ghost hope to accomplish with cursing the family that way?"

"Aside from making us suffer?"

"Curses usually have a lesson to teach in stories," I said. "If we figure out the reason why the curse was laid to begin with, maybe we can find a way to defeat it." Noel started a retort, and I said, "There's still Caleb's future to protect."

That brought Noel up short. "I didn't think of that. I can hardly imagine him as a grown man."

"He will be, before you know it." 

The library door slammed open and Emmanuel stood in the doorway. We both looked up at him, startled, and the triumphant look on his face fled, as if he had expected to find us fucking on the study table and was disappointed to find us just talking.

Noel said coolly, "Did you need something, Father?"

"No," he snapped and stalked off.

Noel waited until Emmanuel's footsteps faded, and then exhaled. "I think," he said, "we'd better not close any doors behind us for a while."

"Pity," I said. "Closing doors is one of my favorite things."

He huffed and started to gather to his papers. "I'm going to bed. Good night, Malcolm."

"Good night, Noel," I said, and put my things away as well.

Little sleep from the night before, an emotional morning, sex -- perhaps it's no wonder that I dropped off quickly, even without a joint to help. My bed felt softer than usual, the duvet cozier, and none of my dreams involved bullets, Nazis, or stolen children. 

I woke to a creak from the door. I tensed at once, expecting the temperature to drop and unseen fingers to scratch my chest. Instead, Noel let himself in and shut the door behind him. Silently, he crawled into my bed and wrapped himself around me through the bedding. I wrapped myself around him, too, and kissed the top of his head as he lay it on my chest.  

We fell asleep huddled together, keeping each other warm.

In the morning he was gone, but I didn't mind. He'd be back.

 

***

 

But that would not be for a few days. Right after All Saints, Noel left for three days in Atlanta; he came home late for only one night before leaving again early the next morning, this time for four days in Houston. 

Caleb was none too pleased about an entire week without Noel. Nor was I, but I didn’t have the excuse of being five years old to mope on the threshold of Noel’s room or only nibble at my supper. 

Instead, I drew a “Days until Uncle Noel Is Home” countdown on the schoolroom blackboard in the most cheerful colors of chalk in my possession. I talked to Caleb at supper and tried to talk to Emmanuel. I read to Caleb at bedtime, and walked with him to the Christies’ house on Saturday so he could play with Samuel. 

On Monday, I took him to and from his therapy appointment and finally met Dr. Dufresne, who was plump and motherly with a sweet Georgia accent and salt-and-pepper hair, and a no-nonsense demeanor that both reassured me that she took Caleb's troubles seriously and made me feel I should be on my best behavior myself.

"So, you're the tutor," she said as we watched Caleb play with toy soldiers in the next room. Her office was soothing, blond woods and overstuffed chairs, and she offered me a chair without glancing at the cane.

"I am," I said, "and you're the child psychologist."

"We've heard a lot about each other, I'm sure." She sat behind her desk, with her hands folded on the cream-colored blotter. "For example, Mr. Thibodeaux has mentioned you are teaching Caleb French and art, as well as the three Rs."

"Yes, that's right. I taught French before the war and art afterward."

"And I get the sense from what he's said that the war hasn't quite left you yet, either."

"I don't think it'll leave any of us who served on the front lines, ma'am."

"No, I suppose not." Her eyes were dark grey, shrewd but kind. "No marriage before the war? Or after?"

"No, ma'am," I said simply. 

There was a slight pause, as if she were making a decision, and then she said, "Caleb seems to think Fidele is haunted." 

I knew he did, of course, but it was still a surprise to hear someone else say it. I swallowed and nodded. "Yes."

"He has drawn pictures of a little girl who comes out of the walls," Dr. Dufresne said. "His drawing has improved so much since I started seeing him."

"Yes," I murmured, my mind elsewhere than his drawing abilities. "A little colored girl? With braids?"

"Yes," she said. "He's told her about her, too?"

"He drew her for me once, but I didn't understand the context. Mrs. Bell said it looked like her when she was a little girl, but he couldn't have seen any pictures of her."

Dr. Dufresne gazed at me thoughtfully. "I am not Noel Thibodeaux's therapist, nor am I yours," she said. "But what the adults in his life experience also effects Caleb--"

"I don't tell him ghost stories," I said. "But I've been in the room with him when something not natural has been there too. I know something is watching him, something malignant." I hesitated and she continued gazing at me calmly. "I also know," I said slowly, "that his father is watching over him, too."

"His father, who died last March," she said.

"I know how it sounds," I said with a sigh. "I know how all of it sounds. But if I'm right, I think Caleb knows his father is with him."

Again she gazed at me. "You were wounded overseas, during the war?"

"Yes."

"It must have been a terrible experience for you."

I gripped the cane a little tighter. "I wouldn't care to repeat it. But I try not to let it color how I treat Caleb."

"If you don't tell him ghost stories, what stories do you tell him?"

"The usual boys' fare," I said. "Fairy tales, adventure stories. He likes stories about knights, now. I think he wants to be a knight when he grows up."

"There are worse things to aspire to," she said and rose from her desk. "It was lovely to meet you, Mr. Carmichael, and put a face to the name."

"It was lovely to meet you too," I said, and when Caleb and I left the office I wondered about her questions, and what she would tell Noel about me the next time they spoke.

Since we would be in the city already, I had told Mrs. Bell not to expect us home for lunch. I took Caleb instead to one of the little cafes I liked in the French Quarter. We ate shrimp po' boys and beignets for dessert, and then we went to the city park so he could run in the open fields and climb the ancient trees.

Thunderheads had lurked over the city all morning, and they finally broke in the afternoon. We drove home in a shower. Caleb rolled down the window enough to stick out his fingers and feel the rain fall, and even though it soaked the sleeve of his jacket I didn't tell him to pull in his hand. I understood the love of rain.

 

***

 

Noel's train was due back Wednesday afternoon. Normally Willie would fetch him from the train station, but Wednesday morning Willie took me aside.

"Mr. Emmanuel says he needs me this afternoon," he said, twisting his cap in his hands. "I reminded him Mr. Noel is due home today, but he -- he says he needs me instead."

What Emmanuel had done to earn Willie's loyalty, I couldn't even guess. I refrained from remarking on it, though and said, "I'll take the truck and meet Noel's train. I don't mind."

"Thank you," he said with obvious relief. "I'd hate for Mr. Noel to wait at the station for hours and not be able to reach us."

I understood his worry. The phones continued to be unreliable, even though Noel had arranged for the phone company to check our lines twice. Both times the linemen said there was nothing wrong with our connection. Still, if Noel tried to call, it was likely he wouldn't get through, and of course we had no way to tell him someone would be at the station later. 

After lunch, I handed Caleb over to Mrs. Bell. "You don't mind watching him?" I asked her, and she laughed.

"I don't mind. I think sometimes the little lamb gets tired of me."

Caleb took her hand and swung it, denying any weariness of her company. I left them and got the keys to the truck, and headed into the city to meet Noel's train.

There was nothing altruistic about this gesture. I missed Noel, I ached for him. I wanted to see him again as soon as possible, and I wanted a few minutes alone with him even if it only was the amount of time it took to drive back to Fidele.

I waited on the platform with my coat collar turned up against the weather. There were benches on the platform, soI sat, fidgeted with my cane, and checked my wristwatch every five minutes. I had tried not to leave too early, knowing that arriving early meant waiting longer, but it still seemed like hours before the train pulled into the station and weary travelers trickled off. 

This included Noel, valise in hand and his eyes scanning the platform. He blinked when he saw me, and then slowly smiled.

I went to meet him. "Hi."

"Hi." His hand started to rise as if he intended to touch my face, but he only offered his arm, instead. We turned together to leave the platform and make our way through the station. "Where's Willie? Is he all right?"

"He's fine. Emmanuel decided he needed him more than you did today, so here I am instead."

"Here you are," he said. "Thank you."

We climbed into the truck and Noel put his valise at his feet. I started started the engine. "Do you want to stop anywhere -- maybe get some coffee?"

"I'd like to get home."

"All right," I said, pulled out of the parking lot, and got onto the road that would take us out of the city. 

It was hard not to stare at Noel instead of watching the road. I felt hungry for every little bit of him -- the slope of his nose, the thick waves of his hair framing his face, even the weariness around his eyes.

I forced myself to concentrate on driving. It would never do to crash because I was distracted by his nearness. 

"How is Caleb?" Noel said.

"Happy enough, most of the time, but he misses you." He sighed, and I said, "I finally met Dr. Dufresne, by the way."

"What did you think of her?"

I said honestly, "I think she saw right through me."

He laughed in his short, dry way. "I feel that way, too." A few silent miles went by. "And you? How are you?"

"I'm mostly happy too," I answered lightly. Noel huffed, looking out the window, and I said, "I've missed you, too."

"Oh," Noel said quietly. "Thanks." He inhaled. "Has anything happened with the ghost lately?"

"Nothing out of the ordinary," I said, and smiled to myself at how discussing the family haunting could feel so normal. "I've been scratched a few more times, but I haven't seen or heard anything new."

"She seems curious about you," Noel mused. "She doesn't seem to understand how you fit into the household."

"Maybe that's good," I said, and Noel studied me with serious eyes. "I mean, if she doesn't know who I am, she wouldn't want to hurt me."

"I suppose."

We were finally on the outskirts of the city, heading into the bayou. I said, "So you don't have to worry about me so much."

"Oh," he murmured, "I'll worry."

I glanced at him, then back at the road. It was raining hard, even with the windshield wipers going, and it was dark from the thick trees that met overhead. 

Noel said, "Will you pull over for a few minutes?"

"Sure." I brought the truck to a stop at the side of the road. We sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the rain tapping on the truck. "Are you sure you don't want to go back for some coffee?"

"I'm sure." Noel's face could be stern sometimes, but at the moment it was soft, even a little sad. He rolled down the window enough to push his fingers through the top of the window and the window frame, and let the rain fall on his fingers. He said softly, "I thought a lot about us while I was away. I made a lot of decisions -- which changed every day," he added in a self-deprecating tone.

"Tell me what you decided."

"Well," Noel said, "at first I decided that Caleb comes first, and you and I being together would only endanger his safety and happiness. And then I decided I deserve happiness too, and you make me happy, so I should be with you. And then I decided I was being selfish and can't risk either of you." 

I protested, "But it's not just your--"

"Let me finish, please." I shut my mouth, and he finally pulled in his fingers and wiped the water off with a handkerchief. "And then I saw you on the platform, and realized that every reason I find to keep us apart pales compared to how much I want you."

My throat felt tight.

He whispered, "So ... So what do you think?"

I said, "I think I want you too."

Noel smiled, tentative. "It's not going to be easy."

"It never is for men like us."

"And Caleb comes first."

"Of course." There was no question to me about that.

"It's not going to change much, you know. As long as we have to stay at Fidele, we'll have to be cautious and not raise Emmanuel's suspicions."

"He's already suspicious."

"Not raise them more, then." Slowly, he moved closer to my side, and then lay his head on my shoulder and pulled my arm around his neck. "You're right. It's never easy. I've never wanted it to be easy because I never wanted it to last."

"I'm not going anywhere," I said and dropped a kiss on his hair.

He exhaled slowly. "One of these days, Malcolm, there'll be something that drives you away."

"Have a little faith in me," I said.

"I do," Noel murmured, weaving our fingers together. "Seems strange to have faith in an agnostic, but I do." He kissed my palm.

With anyone else -- sitting there by the side of the road as the rain came down -- I would have tried to persuade him to spoon a little, if not more; but here with Noel, we just held each other, quiet, giving each other soft kisses at most but otherwise just enjoying a few minutes together.

We didn't stay there for long. We didn't want to keep Caleb waiting.

 

***

 

Caleb was playing in the vestibule with Tumnus when we came back to Fidele. He dropped his toys and ran to meet us, and Noel swung him up in his arms. "Hi, peanut! Did you miss me? I sure missed you. Let's put my valise away and then you can show me what you've been up to." They started up the stairs to Noel's room. 

I watched them for a few minutes, that same -- something -- that had filled me before now warm and overwhelming in my chest. To say they were important to me oversimplified it. They were the air I breathed, the water I drank, and I thought I would fight dragons for them if called upon to do so. 

That was unlikely, even in the wilds of Louisiana. But I would stay in a haunted house for them, which called for more bravery and devotion than a mere fire-breathing, claw-bearing, treasure-hoarding lizard would ever require.

From the stairs, Noel called, "Come on, Malcolm!" and Caleb flapped his hand to me, bidding me to join them. I grinned and did.

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