Chapter Twenty-Three - Thanksgiving

My nightmares had tapered off during November, as if the dream on Halloween night used up all their energy; but tonight, almost as soon as I dropped off I was back in Hurtgen Forest, and the man who’d tried to mug us now wore a German uniform and shouted, “Give me your wallet!” before his machine gun opened fire.

I jerked awake and scrambled for my rifle before I remembered when and where I was, and sank back into bed, trembling. The house was so quiet even my damaged hearing could pick up the ticking of the grandfather clock in the passage. For a minute or two I tried to breathe along to its measured rhythm, and then grabbed my cane and a dressing gown and left my room. I wanted Noel so badly I could only hope he would forgive me for taking this risk. 

I let myself into Noel’s room and searched the bed for him with my hand. It was too dark to see without pulling back the bed curtains, and after a minute I realized the bed was empty. I shoved my hand through my hair, despairing -- and then heard the quiet sound of piano music.

If it was Simon, Noel would be there.

Hastily, I made my way downstairs to the music room, where to my surprise I saw it was Noel at the keyboard. Not watching unseen hands press the keys, as I now knew I had seen before, but playing himself, his gaze fixed on the windows opposite the piano even though there was nothing to see in the darkness. The song was melancholy but sweet, and after a moment or two I realized this was the song the band had played at the 4/4 Club, the song Simon had written.

I went to him, hesitated, and then sat on the bench beside him. Wordlessly, he stopped playing and wrapped his arms around me, I wrapped mine around him, and we clung to each other and trembled and kissed.

When I was calm again, I whispered, “Bad night for you, too, huh?"

"I've had worse." He paused, then whispered, "I wish we could go to bed together."

"We have been in bed together."

"I mean," Noel said, "I wish we could brush our teeth and kiss good night, and fall asleep around the same time and wake up to the same alarm clock. That's what I wish."

I lifted my head from his shoulder and studied his face. I wanted it, too. "We'll have it someday."

"I hope so. It's hard to be patient."

"I know. Usually I'm not patient at all."

Noel chuckled. "I know."

"I don't know how you do it," I said. "It must get frustrating."

"Oh, I have outlets. I box at the YMCA, for instance. Of course,” he added, “I tend to go overboard sometimes and then it’a hard to find a sparring partner.”

“You box,” I said. He socked my jaw, little more than a nudge, and I grinned at him. “You are full of secrets, Noel Thibodeaux.”

“I’m sure you’ve got a few of your own.”

I did -- I do -- but I only kissed his mouth and lay my head on his shoulder. He chuckled and combed his fingers through my hair.

"We should go sometime," he murmured. "You can swim, can't you? There's a pool."

"I can swim, but I hate it when people stare at my scars."

"There are enough vets who go there that everyone's used to battle scars." He paused, then said, "Swimming was compulsory at my boarding school. I didn't want to, of course. I pretended to be sick to my stomach for the first few weeks when we were supposed to swim, which got the attention of the school nurse. She was the first one to see my scars at this school, and she -- I remember her face. Her lips went very tight and her face turned red, and I thought she was going to scold me, or worse. But instead she went to the headmaster and they got the swimming coach, and they decided I should still learn to swim but do it without the other boys around.

"So for about the next six years it was just the coach, his assistant, and me during the swimming season, and they never asked about the scars." He paused again, then said, "I hadn't realized before then that people would want to be kind to me. I'm still surprised sometimes when people are kind."

I listened to this story with my eyes closed, and when he was done I held his face and kissed him, hard. I pressed our heads together and he held me tighter. "You deserve kindness, baby," I whispered with another kiss to his mouth. "You deserve everything sweet."

"Malcolm," he said and we kissed, desperate for each other's touch.

We stopped only when our elbows hit the piano keyboard, sending a atonal chord echoing through the house. We froze, both of us breathing hard, and Noel placed his fingers on my lips.

The house remained quiet. It was possible anyone listening might write off the sound as just the house being its usual self, but it was also possible that someone was waiting for further noises to follow.

"I should go," I whispered and slipped out of Noel's arms. I rearranged my disheveled clothes and groped for my cane, and looked at Noel in the pre-dawn light. As exhausted he looked, he was beautiful this way, hair mussed and lips red. I ached to stay.

I merely kissed him again and said, "Get some sleep," and he smiled and said, "You too," and watched me as I left.

I fell asleep again almost as soon as I lay in my own bed. The next time I opened my eyes the sun was up and I could smell bacon frying for breakfast, and I heard Caleb run down the passage from the nursery and across the vestibule to wake up Noel. A typical Sunday morning for Fidele. 

Before I could sit up or even put my dressing gown on again, Noel tapped on the door. "Malcolm, Caleb wants to see you before we go."

"Come in," I said and sat up. Noel opened the door and in ran Caleb, who climbed up onto my bed and put his arms around my neck. I hugged him. "Did you miss us last night, little man?"

He nodded and leaned his head on my shoulder.

Noel sat on the bed too. "I haven't even told Caleb about where we went last night. Do you remember Eula?" Caleb nodded again. "We saw her at the 4/4 last night. She misses you. We should go by some time when the band is playing so they can see you."

Caleb frowned, but nodded and then played with top button on my pajama top. I patted his back. Noel was watching him too, also frowning, and said, "We can't linger too long, peanut. We need to get to church."

Caleb sigh, kissed my cheek, and clambered down from the bed and ran out of the room. Noel looked at me and touched my hand. "See you later."

"See you," I said, and wrapped my arm around one knee as I watched him go.

Noel was right, I couldn't fix everything with a dinner. I couldn't fix everything, period. But I could give them what I had, my love and my patience and my strength, and hope it would be enough even though it was far less than what they deserved. 

 

***

 

Late Thursday morning, I drove into the city. Since Noel was so set against having Thanksgiving dinner at Fidele and Rene had invited me to join his family, I decided to stop pressing Noel about it and to accept Rene's invitation. During the war, when my unit was given Thanksgiving dinner Rene had waxed rhapsodic about his family's traditions, turkey so tender you didn't need a knife to slice it, sweet potato pie, collard greens, smashed red potatoes, cornbread dressing. I was eager to try this particular meal in the southern style, since the southern food Mrs. Bell cooked for us always turned out so delicious and satisfying. 

I parked down the street from the Gaspards' house. As usual, the street was lined with cars as families all over the neighborhood got together to celebrate, and the air smelled delicious, like cinnamon and freshly-baked bread.

When I rang the bell at the Gaspards' house, Mrs. Gaspard greeted me and kissed my cheek. "Rene is in the back with the rest of the menfolk," she said and offered an arm for me to lean on as we through the house.

"What are they doing back there?"

"Cooking the turkey, cher."

I imagined an outdoor brick oven like those we'd sometimes seen in Europe, but what I found was the men of the Gaspard family gathered around a row of contraptions I'd never seen: three tall pots on stands, all filled with boiling oil. The men were drinking beers and chatting, and when I came outside Rene broke off from the group with a big grin. "Sarge! Welcome!"

"Thank you." We shook hands heartily. "What's all this?"

"Deep-fried turkey, naturally." At my blank expression he laughed and said, "This is how we've always done it, for as long as I can remember. Leave the meat tender and the skin crispy. You'll love it." He fetched a bottle of beer from the usual tub of ice and gave it to me. I twisted off the top and had a swig, and Rene asked, "So no one from Fidele wanted to join us?"

"Noel doesn't like Thanksgiving," I said, "and Caleb didn't want to come without Noel." That was my guess, anyway -- when I'd asked Caleb if he'd like to join me at the Gaspards, his answer had been an indifferent shrug. 

"Aw, that's too bad," said Rene. "We were hoping to see them again. But I understand Noel not wanting to spend a day that's about family, given everything with his."

"Yeah," I murmured. "Hey, have you ever been to the 4/4 Club?"

He nodded. "I have. It's a nice little place. Good music, good food."

"Noel owns it. Well, he's keeping it for Caleb. It was Simon's."

"Oh, yes," Rene said. "I haven't been since the fire. I wasn't sure it would still be open."

"It's open. Noel and I went this weekend. The musicians were so happy it see him, it made me wonder if he used to play there regularly."

"I didn't go there often enough to know, but I wouldn't think so. Simon was the musician."

"The dreamer," I said. "That's the impression that I get."

"Likely so." He shrugged. "With Fidele so isolated and the family so -- how they are -- most of what I know about them is second-hand. Even with Grace and Simon Thibodeaux living in the city, we didn't exactly move in the same social circles, us."

"Right," I said, turning his words over in my mind. 

He patted my back and nodded to the row of boilers. "Gotta go watch the birds cook. We'll eat in about half an hour. There's snacks inside, if you need a nibble."

"Go on," I said, and went back into the house.

The children were playing together in the big living room, minded by whoever wasn't cooking. I peeped into the kitchen, not wanting to get in the way there; it was bustling with activity as pies were taken out of the oven and potatoes boiled in pots of water; one sister was looking in on a pan of stuffing and another was carefully arranging vegetables in a pattern on a plate, alternating carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes and small pieces of celery. 

Looking up from her pan of gravy, Angelique spotted me and came over to give me a hug. I hugged her back gladly. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

"We've got it all in hand, Malcolm, but thank you. Danielle, will you stir the gravy for a few minutes?" We moved out of the kitchen to a slightly quieter part of the house, a sun porch that looked out over the back yard. It was lined with cushioned benches on three sides, and Angelique knelt on one so she could look outside. I eased myself onto the bench beside her and leaned against the wall, and watched her as she watched the men.

"Look at him," she said softly, and I knew she meant Rene. "I've known him since I was a girl. I still marvel that he's going to marry me."

I said, "You've got yourself a good man, Angelique," and she smiled at me.

"He'll do. He'll do fine. I know his injuries may mean he can't give me children, but there are nieces and nephews enough to make up for it."

"I'm afraid I don't know any details about that," I said. "I hardly remember Hurtgen Forest."

"Oh, I understand. That part -- I won't say it's not important, because it is, but it's not why I'm marrying him."

"Sometimes people just want to be together," I said.

"Exactly." She paused. "Maybe if you're still teaching Caleb next year, you can convince Noel and Caleb to join us then."

"Maybe," I said. "Noel doesn't care for the holiday much, though. There are some things even I can't convince him to do."

"He's become your sweetheart," she said.

I hadn't thought of it that way, but I nodded.

Angelique patted my shoulder with a quiet laugh, and looked out the window again, leaning her chin on her hand. "It's not hard to see. You're very tender with him."

"I suppose so. His father can't know, so we're trying to keep things quiet."

"That's wise."

I said, after a moment, "He thinks his family is cursed, that anyone who marries into it will die."

"Given their history, I don't blame him. His mother, his grandmother, his great-grandmother -- it goes back for generations."

"Yes," I said softly, "I've noticed. They're all in the family Bible and the cemetery." I hesitated again, then said, "We think -- and suspect Grace may have thought so, too -- that it's Charlotte Thibodeaux haunting the house."

"Charlotte? The family matriarch?"

"Yes. The one who's said to have lost her mind and tried to kill her baby."

"Hm," said Angelique, and turned away from the window so she could sit beside me. "It would make sense, as far as anything involving a haunting makes sense. She's said to have taken her own life. Violent deaths often do create a ghost."

"Grace was looking into the family history," I said, "but if she found any records that proved her theory, they were lost in the fire."

"But you still want to prove it," she said, looking at me frankly.

"I want to see if we're right, and if we're not right, I want to know who that ghost is. If we figure out why they're haunting the house, maybe we can find a way to put them to rest."

"Which is your ultimate goal."

I toyed with my cane. "I want Noel and Caleb to feel safe in their own house, and right now, they don't."

Angelique was quiet, twisting her engagement ring on her finger as she thought.

I said, "You know so much about the spiritual world and I know next to nothing, aside from what I've observed over the last few years."

"You want my help."

"Your help or your advice."

She played with her ring a moment more. "A vodun practitioner could cleanse the house, or a Catholic priest could bless it."

"But would that end the curse? Could you end the curse?"

She sighed and laughed at once. "I've never laid a curse on someone, Malcolm. I don't know how you'd lift one."

"Well, it was a thought."

She was quiet a moment more, then said, "Do you want answers, or do you just want the ghost gone?"

I said slowly, "I'm not sure ghosts can be driven out of the place they're haunting. I'd rather have answers, but Noel might have a different idea."

"You haven't talked to him about this?" I shook my head and she gave her little half-laugh, half-sigh again. "You ought to do that, not make his decisions for him."

"I've been either a teacher or a unit commander for the last ten years," I said. "I'm used to making the decisions."

"That may get you in trouble someday."

"I'm sure it will."

She twisted her ring, then gave it a final, determined turn and said, "I think what we ought to do is hold a seance. We'll try to talk to the ghost and figure out who she is and what she wants, and then we can decide what to do after that." She fixed her eye on me. "But not without Noel's permission before, Malcolm."

"I'll ask him. When should we do it?"

"After midwinter," Angelique said. "It's a thin time of year -- the veil between worlds is thin, I mean -- and the spirits might be ready to communicate. I think New Year's Eve would be best, too. A time of transition is always a good time to hold a seance, too."

"Okay," I said. "I'll talk to Noel. Thank you, Angelique."

"Don't thank me yet," she replied. "The funny thing about talking to ghosts is you may not learn anything you actually want to know."

"Tell me about it," I said.

Rene appeared in the sunroom doorway. "There you are! Making time with my girl, are you, Sarge?"

"Yep," I said. "Seducing her away from you with my wiles."

He laughed and came to us to offer both hands to help us up. "Come and eat first, then we'll talk about who's seducing whom."

Angelique hopped up and kissed his cheek. "Mon homme," she said tenderly, her arms around his waist. 

"Ma belle," he replied and kissed her hair, and we finally got me to my feet from the low bench.

 

***

 

I was eager to get back to Noel now that Angelique and I had a plan. It was still early evening when I parked the truck in the carriage house, and the lights were on in the library.

Noel put down his pencil when I sat at the table across from him. "You look like you had a good time."

"I did," I said. "I like the Gaspards. They're good people. They deep-fried the turkey for our dinner, too, which I've never had."

"That sounds good."

"It was. Noel," I leaned over the table a little, "I may have done something a littlepresumptuous."

Noel raised his eyes at me. "May have?"

"I talked to Angelique about our ghost."

"Oh?" Eyebrows still raised, waiting for me to continue.

"If what we want is answers, then she thinks we should have a seance."

Noel was wearing his reading glasses, usual when he was working on a draft, and he pushed them up his nose. "A seance."

"Yes. Or if we just want the ghost gone, we hire a vodun priest to cleanse the house, or a Catholic one for an exorcism." 

"Emmanuel would never allow either of those."

"Then I guess we're having a seance."

"Malcolm..." He shook his head with a sigh. "Emmanuel would never allow that, either."

"Maybe we should beg forgiveness rather than ask permission."

"Your usual mode of operation," Noel observed, and I just smiled at him, unabashed.

"I'm more concerned with your permission than with his."

"What exactly would this seance involve?"

"We didn't go into that much detail. In films there's usually candles and chanting to summon the spirits."

Noel was still regarding me skeptically. "When do you want to do this?"

"New Year's Eve."

"That's better than tomorrow night," Noel murmured. He sighed, then said, "All right. But, but," he added when I stood so I could lean over the table and kiss him, "only if Caleb is sleeping somewhere else that night, maybe at the Christies', and provided there aren't too many people involved."

"We can arrange that," I said. "We should start talking about Christmas sometime soon, too."

"Malcolm, no," Noel groaned. "No Christmas. No holidays. It's not worth the hell Emmanuel will raise."

"I'll take responsibility," I said. "I'll beg forgiveness."

"Go to bed, Malcolm," Noel said and bent his head over his draft again. "I'm not in the mood for this."

"Tomorrow?"

"Good night, Malcolm."

I rose from the table, and then came around to his side and kissed his hair. He sighed slowly, and said again, gently this time, "Good night, Malcolm."

"Good night, Noel." I ran my hand over his head and made my way upstairs.

>> Chapter Twenty-Four