Chapter Thirteen - Surrender

This chapter contains explicit content. Content warning for child abuse related by adult survivor.

Dorian called me the house a few days later. “Can you come into the city on Sunday? I want to show you the photos I’ve developed before I give them to Noel.”

Sunday morning, I drove to the house Dorian shared with three other students near the Tulane campus. This part of the city felt sleepy and languid, as if everyone was sleeping off their Saturday night hangovers or repenting their Saturday night indulgences in church. Even the house had the sense of quiet that comes when its residents haven’t gotten out of bed.

I parked on the street and walked up to the front porch. I rang the bell, and a few minutes later one of Dorian’s housemates opened the door and gestured for me to come inside. “Dorian’s in the darkroom.” He took me through the house and rapped on the door of what had likely once been a butler’s pantry. The little hallway smelled strongly of chemicals. “Dorian! Malcolm’s here.”

There were fumbling sounds inside, and Dorian opened the door. “Thanks. Come on in, Malcolm.”

I squeezed myself into the tiny room. Dorian had folded blackout curtains at the broom if the doors to block out the light. There were no windows, fortunately, but there was a deep stone sink and many shelves in the cabinet, which was also where Dorian had hung the developed photos to dry.

“Are you doing better since your fall?” Dorian asked me after we’d kissed hello.

“I’m all right.” I leaned against the counter. “Caleb keeps me busy.”

“He seems like a sweet kid.”

“He is.”

Dorian took one of the photos from the line. “This is a picture I took of him and Noel.”

I took the photo and studied it in the dim light. It was a charming picture, Noel and Caleb playing together on the lawn of Fidele, and it took me a moment to figure out what was wrong. “What are these dark spots from?”

“I’m not sure.” Dorian handed me another. “I’ve developed that roll three times with the same result — not on every picture, but on a lot of them. And then there’a this.”

It was one of the photos Noel had taken of the lost graveyard — of the big bottle tree in the center of the cemetery, with another mysterious shadow, vaguely person-shaped and slightly transparent, standing at the foot of the tree.

The hairs on the back of my neck pricked. I had sense a strangeness to the graveyard the night I found Caleb there, but nothing during the day. Obviously, even my new skill didn’t work all the time. Knowing that didn’t reassure me.

“I took this one yesterday.” Dorian handed me another picture from the line, this one taken in one of the cafes near the Tulane campus, just a couple drinking coffee and reading together. It was a sweet picture, and there were no smears or unusual shapes. “It’s from the same roll.”

“You developed this one too?” I asked.

Dorian nodded. “Right in this room. If it were just happening on one camera, or even just on one roll of film, I would think it was a flaw in the camera or in the film. But two different cameras and two different rolls – and not even the same problem on each roll – I don’t know, Malcolm. I’m hesitant to give Noel the pictures. I don’t want him to think I did a shoddy job.”

I looked through all the photos again. The photos Dorian had taken away from Fidele were lovely, sharp and clear. What took me by surprise was that a half-dozen of the pictures were of Noel, Simon, Grace, and Caleb, taken the previous Christmas. Noel had taken most of the pictures, as they were mostly of the little Thibodeaux family — unwrapping presents, singing at the piano as Simon played, Caleb playing with this toys. But Grace had gotten the camera away from Noel enough times to take pictures of the two brothers together, as they blew out candles on a birthday cake or drank from wine glasses in unison, or Simon’s arm around Noel’s shoulder as they leaned against each other in a quiet moment.

They were such a happy family it brought a lump to my throat. Dorian said softly, “Those were on the roll Noel gave me.”

“I know he’ll want these.”

“Of course. But he offered to pay for the supplies and I don’t feel like I can accept it in good conscience.”

“I’ll tell him that,” I said. “He may want to pay anyway.”

Dorian murmured, “Well, he’s a decent chap,” and glanced at me from under his eyelashes. “Can you stay a while today?”

“I can,” I said, “can we bring these?”

“Of course,” Dorian said and got a manila envelope to store the photos safely.

We went to a nearby cafe for breakfast. New Orleans reminded me of San Francisco this way — we were never outside of walking distance to a good place to eat. We sat at one of the outside tables where we could enjoy the sunshine and the autumn chill, and Dorian took the photos out of the envelope again. He frowned as he thumbed through them. “I could ask one of my friends to redo one of the rolls,” he said.

“Don’t,” I said. “The problem isn’t in the development or even on the film. It’s something else.”

He looked up at me. “What is it?”

I was quiet as a waiter brought us tiny cups of strong coffee, and had a sip. The acrid flavor reminded me of France. “Do you believe in ghosts?”

Dorian gave me a slight smile. “I’m a New Orleans native, cher, going back eight generations. I believe in a lot of things. You think these shapes are ghosts?”

“I think something’s going on at Fidele. I’m pretty sure the house it haunted.”

Dorian neither looked shocked nor laughed. He simply shrugged a shoulder. “Most of the old houses are, or so their stories go. Slavery, wars, Reconstruction … there’s been a lot of death ’round here, and a lot of it was violent. Ghosts are part of the landscape.” He turned the Christmas pictures toward me. “But not here. This was a house full of life.”

I had to swallow again. It was, and from all i’d heard Simon and Grace had done everything they could to keep it that way, to raise Caleb in a loving, happy household. And they’d died anyway.

I put the photos anyway. Dorian watched me, and said, “You really care for them.”

“It’s hard not to care for Caleb,” I said. “He’s a good kid in a tough situation, and I’m responsible for him.”

“I don’t mean just Caleb — I mean Noel, too.” He toyed with his coffee cup. “Malcolm, I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“Dorian—”

“You’re always going to be thinking of Noel Thibodeaux,” Dorian said, and I couldn’t deny it. “I like you, but no one wants to come in second to their lover. If you ever get him out of your system, come look me up. But until then—” He shrugged and looked away a moment. “I think we should just be friends.”

“Angelique will be disappointed.”

“But you won’t,” he said. “Proving my point.”

“I guess I have some things I need to figure out.”

He pushed the envelope across the table to me. “Take these to Noel. He can have the pictures I took of Fidele. I don’t think I’ll do anything with them.”

“You can come out any time and try again.”

“Maybe,” Dorian said, and the waiter came then with our omelettes and beignets.

By the time I returned to Fidele, the family had returned from church and Caleb had changed out of his Sunday best so he and Noel could play outside. Noel had loosened his tie and taken off his suit jacket, and when I came up the drive they both stopped what they were doing — marbles, I suspected, or looking at bugs — to wave at me. I waved back, parked the truck in the carriage house, and came around to the garden to see what they were up to.

They had been playing outside for a while, by all appearances — the grass was littered with crayons, toy soldiers, block, paper airplanes — and Noel smiled and gave me a What can you do? sort of shrug as I surveyed the mess.

“I think Caleb needs a playhouse.”

“I think you’re right.” I lowered myself onto the nearest bench — at least they had chosen a spot that got shade from the morning sun — and Caleb ran to me to show me his latest pictures. He had not drawn the man in brown pants and a red sweater lately, and I hoped that meant he hadn’t seen his father’s ghost. Today he had pictures of Tumnus to show me, which I duly admired, and he scampered off again to play.

Noel moved from the grass to sit beside me. “How was your morning?”

“Not bad,” I said. “Dorian developed the pictures.” I gave him the envelope of photographs. “There are some strange shadows in some of them. He said he developed them a few times and the shadows were always there.”

Noel glanced up at me and took out the photos, and began to thumb through them.

I added hastily, “He also developed the entire roll you gave him.”

“Oh,” Noel murmured as he came to the Christmas photos. He looked through them, frowning, and I watched his face.

“I know it’s hard to see pictures like that after a long time,” I said when he didn’t speak.

“Don’t look so worried.” Noel put the photos back in the envelope. “I don’t think Caleb should see these just yet.”

“All right,” I said, and Caleb ran to us again and grabbed our hands to pull us off the bench. Just as well – Noel didn’t want to talk about any of the pictures, and at the moment, neither did I.

Storm clouds gathered all afternoon, which was not unusual. Mrs. Bell took Caleb for his afternoon nap, and I got my sketchbook and pencil for work on the comic a little. Noel shut himself in the library as the afternoon grew darker, so I took myself to the sitting room and turned on the radio.

And then turned it right off again, because all I could get was static. We were in for another thunderstorm, I supposed, and the thought made me wish Noel felt more social or even that I could impose on Mrs. Bell for another cooking lesson, just so I could have some company.

The house was so quiet I could have believed I was alone. I bound my pencil to the sketchbook with a rubber band, and was about to haul myself up to find somewhere else to pass the afternoon when the silence was broken by the sound of sobbing.

It was not the faint, echoing sound of previous sobs, though. It was deeper, rougher, so human-sounding I got up as fast as I could and went out into the vestibule.

It was coming from the library. Of course it was – who else had cause to cry with such grief today?

Still, I hesitated. Noel and I talked sometimes, but at this point he knew more about me and my family than I knew about him.

He was still weeping. I tapped on the door, and opened it without waiting for him to bid me enter. “Noel?”

He was sitting at the long table, and hastily wiped his eyes. “Yes? What?”

“I thought you might want some company, with the storm coming.” I leaned my hip against the door frame. “And even if you don’t, I do.”

Noel looked at me as if he couldn’t quite comprehend the question, then he inhaled resolutely. “Do you want to go for a drive?”

“Sure.” An odd request, but it was better than sitting here and cringing every time thunder struck.

Noel put away his papers in his briefcase and rose from the table. “I’ll be right back.” He went up the stairs with the briefcase, and I waited in the vestibule.

Outside, the sky was darker still but while the air was moist it was not yet raining. We didn’t speak as we got into the Jaguar, and Noel tore out of the carriage house, far more reckless than I had ever seen him drive.

Somewhere on the road through the new forest, Noel pulled the Jaguar over and turned off the engine. I watched him as he almost spoke several times.

Finally, calmly, staring straight ahead, he said, "We didn’t celebrate Christmas when we were growing up. Or our birthday. Not until we were out of school and making our own lives, and even then – during the war, my unit would do a little something for Christmas since we usually got a Red Cross package, but I never told anyone it was my birthday, too.

“Simon may have celebrated and just not told me about it, but it wasn’t until he and Grace were married that she started making sure we had a birthday party on Christmas Day. It was never … an easy day.”

I watched him, his stoic face, his full mouth.

“Emmanuel used to beat me.”

I said nothing. Thunder rumbled in the distance.

He said, “It started when I was about three. It wasn’t much at first. Boxing my ears. Spankings. Slaps. He was always careful not to hit me where people could see the bruises but the whole household knew. Mrs. Bell used to tell me I had to be good, I had to be so good, so I didn’t make him angry.” He stopped. A muscle fluttered in his jaw. “It didn’t matter whether I was good or not.”

“Noel,” I whispered.

“He never hit Simon,” Noel said fiercely, looking at me at last. “I never resented Simon for it. I knew I deserved it, every bruise, every cut. I’d killed our mother, after all.”

“Noel, no.”

He looked away again. The wind rustled the trees around us.

“Then on our seventh birthday – Christmas Day – I don’t remember what I did to set him off, wished him Merry Christmas, maybe – he took off his belt –”

He stopped again and swallowed hard. I reached over to take his hand, and he let me wind our fingers together.

“He didn’t stop until Simon put himself between us. I remember that better than any of the rest of it – Emmanuel towering over him and Simon with his chin stuck out, and he said, ‘If you hit him one more time I’ll take him away and we’ll leave you forever.’”

I said, “That’s what big brothers are supposed to do. They’re supposed to protect you.”

“They’re not supposed to have to do that from your own father when they’re still children themselves.” He gave me one of his hollow smiles. “We were taken away for a while after that. A hospital, then a foster home. I would have been perfectly happy never to set foot in Fidele again, but Emmanuel has powerful friends and they made the family court give us back. Not long after that I was sent away to boarding school without Simon.” He looked at me again. “He could always find a way to punish us.”

For a moment or two I didn’t move or speak. My heart ached for him, for the suffering he had endured from such a young age and the damage it had done to him inside and out; but there was admiration for him, too, because he had managed to emerge from it as a strong and amazing man.

I probably should have said something to that effect. Instead, I surged across the seat and kissed him.

He made a muffled sound and kissed me back, holding me by the shoulders. The Jaguar was not made for two men, both over six feet tall, to tangle together in the front seat, but still I fit between his thighs when he wrapped his legs around my hips.

We kissed, desperate, hungry, until I pulled back, gasping for breath. We looked at each other. The storm clouds covered the sky entirely and there were no lights this deep in the bayou, but I could see his wide eyes, his parted lips, the flush in his cheeks, the flutter of his pulse beating hard in his throat. I kissed his neck and Noel shivered in my arms.

“Malcolm,” he said but that was all – my name a soft sigh, like the sound of surrender.

“Let me make you feel good.” I sucked his earlobe.

“Yes,” he said simply and captured my mouth, his hand twisting into my hair. “Yes, Malcolm.”

I pushed his T-shirt up his body and kissed his stomach and his chest, and he lifted his arms so I could push his shirt over his head. It left his hair tousled, beautiful, and I pushed my hands through it as I tipped his face up for another kiss.

My right leg started to spasm; I groaned in frustration and pulled away again. “I can’t stay in this position,” I said apologetically, and Noel huffed a laugh.

“You get how you need to be, sunshine,” he said in a growl that made me shiver. I sat up in the passenger seat and pulled Noel to me so he straddled my lap. His upper body was bare and I ran my hands over his skin hungrily as I gazed up at him, and then I kissed his body, the crisp curling hair on his chest and the path down his belly. Noel held onto my shoulders, moaning quietly, and then his hand fisted in my hair as I undid his belt and his trousers.

“D’you want me to stop?” I muttered as I kissed his hip bones.

“No, God, no. Don’t stop.”

I pulled his trousers down his hips. His prick was hard, already leaking from the tip, and I ran my thumb over the head to feel Noel tremble. He did, to my satisfaction, and he shoved his hand deeper into my hair.

“Malcolm,” he said, insistent, and I didn’t tease him – I dipped my head and took him in, my arms wrapped around his thighs. He rocked into my mouth, his moans echoing through the trees, his fingers moving through my hair and scraping lightly over my scalp.

I could have stayed there all night, tasting all the flavors of his skin, enjoying the weight of him on my tongue, but it seemed like only minutes before he was gripping my shoulder and gasping, “Malcolm, Malcolm.” I took him deeper and swallowed around him, and he shouted as come shot down my throat. I drank his come greedily, unable to keep back the yummy sounds that escaped me at the flavor of him.

I pulled back and kissed his stomach, just below his navel. He ran his hand through my hair and tilted my face up, and gazed at me with eyes that seemed to glitter in the dark. He swept his thumb over my lips. “Such a sweet mouth,” he murmured and kissed me. He pushed me back against the driver side door and I grinned up at him as I hastily undid my jeans. He ripped my shirt open, buttons bouncing everywhere, and scraped his teeth over my chest. I arched up to him, my feet pressing against the passenger-side door, and he pushed down my jeans. “Christ, you’re enormous everywhere,” he muttered and took me into his mouth.

I gripped the top of the door. He sucked me hard, his arms wrapped around my hips, and he didn’t try to hold me down or hold me back but let me fuck his mouth, fast and rough and messy.

I grabbed his hair as I came, feeling as if I’d been sent into orbit, and only eased up when I settled back into my skin. Noel watched me, unsmiling, and tasted his lips.

“Hey,” I said when I had my breath back.

“Hey,” he answered and buttoned my jeans. “Sorry about your shirt.”

“I have others,” I replied and stretched my arms. “Hey,” I said again, “c’mere,” and pulled Noel to me. He lay his head on my chest with a sigh, and I combed my fingers through his thick, soft hair until he finally relaxed and closed his eyes.

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