Chapter Fourteen - Aftermath

A moment later, the sky opened and we were drenched with rain. Noel cursed and clambered out of the Jaguar so he could unbuckle the fabric roof and get it in place. I tried not to laugh at his fumbling, and wrapped myself around him when he climbed back in, soaked and shivering. I rubbed his arms and kissed raindrops from his face until he muttered, "All right, all right," and tucked his head against my neck. We lay in silence for a while as we listened to the tick-tap-tick of the rain on the Jaguar's roof. Noel stroked my chest and I rubbed my lips against his hair. I could feel the steady thump of his heart. His body was solid in my arms. As I held him his trembling subsided.

He whispered as he stroked my chest with his thumb, "I didn't plan this. I wanted to talk to you away from -- all that -- but I didn't plan this."

"I'm not complaining." He chuckled dryly, and I said, "Are you all right with this?"

Rain tapped on the windows, louder than before in Noel's silence. My hand rested on the space between his shoulder blades where I could feel him breathe. Finally, soft, "I'm not sorry this happened. I've wanted you since the moment I laid eyes you. But there's a reason I don't have sweethearts, Malcolm. I can't take the risk."

"You can't live in fear of your father forever."

"It's more than that."

"What risk are you taking?" I tipped up his head -- even in the dim light I could see the trouble in his face, the sorrow in his eyes. "Is it losing your job? Your reputation?"

"My job doesn't care who I fuck," Noel said. "And I don't give a fuck about my reputation."

"Then what are you so afraid of losing?" He gazed at me, and I stroked his full lower lip with my thumb. "Noel. Tell me."

His eyes searched my face. "You've got a big family, don't you? Lots of cousins?"

"A ridiculous amount," I said. "There are Carmichaels all over northern California."

Noel nodded slowly. "My family isn't like that. One child, maybe two, and then the wife dies. Branches have died out after a generation or two. We're going to die out entirely unless Caleb has kids."

"I saw that in the family Bible."

"You've looked in the family Bible?"

"I was curious," I said. "And it's a beautiful book."

He nodded again, still looking troubled, and said, "So you've seen how spectacularly unlucky my family is in love."

"So be the one to break that streak." I was still stroking his mouth, and I felt him start to smile.

"It's not that simple." He paused, blinking slowly as I stroked his mouth. "You should be with that Dorian boy, Malcolm. He's sweet, and he has far less history to contend with."

"He's very sweet," I said, "but he's not you."

Noel looked even more pained. "You don't know what you're asking for."

"I'm asking for you. Noel Thibodeaux, who's like the moon."

"Like the moon?" He raised an eyebrow.

I smiled back. "Untouchable, or so I'm told." I ran my palms over his cheeks. "But I know you're not untouchable. You're not only beautiful, but you're also kind, and a little bit lonely, and you have the sweetest lips I've ever kissed."

His eyelids dropped a moment as if he would let me soothe him, and then he kissed my mouth and sat up. "We should get back."

I sat up too, but put my hand on his knee. "Noel." He looked at me, his eyes still troubled. "I'm on your side. You know that, right?"

He studied my face, and then leaned over to kiss me, light and quick. "I know." He started up the engine and pulled back onto the road.

We were both soaked through by the time we got back to the house. No one saw us arrive; the house was as quiet as if everyone were still at church, though there was a fire crackling in the great fireplace at the end of the dining room. Noel and I glanced at each other, and then went to our separate rooms.

I stripped off my wet clothes and took out dry ones, but instead of dressing I lay on my bed in my shorts, buzzing under my skin at the memory of Noel's mouth.

I was at a loss, truly. I'd wanted him from the first moment I saw him, but that wasn't unusual. The world was full of beautiful men, and I'd had my share -- before the war, during, and even since. I learned the names of a few of them, but most, we were ships in the night, and I didn't want it any other way. Oliver was an exception, though I could see now that we were distant how I wanted what he represented more than the man himself. He was a family man, stable; he had children he adored, and a place in the world; things I increasingly wanted for myself after years of telling myself I didn't need anything but a roof over my head and time to draw.

Noel made me want to break all my rules. I had spent so many years protecting my heart against being broken again, I didn't know what to do know that someone new had found his way in.

Before I could think about this further, though, I heard music coming from the nursery. It sounded like one of Caleb's records, a French children's song, only the speed was strange--too fast, then too slow -- and if I could hear it, it had to be so screamingly loud that it was painful to whoever was in the room.

Hastily I pulled on jeans and a T-shirt and went down to Caleb's room. As I thought, there was a record on Caleb's little player, playing at a speed that made it sound like screeching instead of music. Caleb cowered on his bed, Tumnus in his arms, whose ears were alert and eyes were wide and tail was a stiff brush.

I knocked the needle off the record yanked the cord from the walls, and scooped up Caleb and the kitten in the sudden silence. They both were shaking, Caleb breathing hard as if he had been running up and down the stairs, his eyes fixed on the record player. "Caleb," I said. "Look at me, Caleb."

He dragged his eyes away to meet mine, and at that he slumped limply against me. "It's okay," I said. "It's okay. You're safe."

Tumnus meowed and squirmed out of Caleb's arms, and ran out the door the moment he let her go. Rather than chasing after her as I thought he would, Caleb put his arms around my neck and hid his face in my chest. I patted his back and whispered to him again that he was safe, he was okay, while I searched my pockets for a handkerchief. I did't have one, of course -- I never seemed to when I needed one. My shirt was not damp, to my surprise -- he was frightened, but not to the point of tears.

"That was weird, wasn't it?" I said after a few minutes. "Like your record player was broken?"

Caleb looked up at me. His eyes were clear, rather than red and wet, and there was a startlingly determined look on his face, far more stern than one normally sees on a five-year-old.

I said, "Was the scary lady here again?"

Solemnly, Caleb shook his head. He plucked at my shirt.

"Was it someone else?" I said. "Someone you couldn't see but knew was here?"

He shook his head again.

"You can see this person?"

Slowly, he nodded.

"What does he look like?"

Caleb shook his head, then rubbed his eyes with his palms. He slid down from my lap and held out his hand to me. I put my hand in his, and he tugged me up and led me out of the nursery to the kitchen, where we found Mrs Bell cooking supper and Tumnus watching her, her tail twitching. Mrs. Bell often turned up her nose at Tumnus -- cats belonged outside, in her opinion -- but she was not above sneaking tidbits into Tumnus's food dish, either.

I got Caleb's paper and crayons, and he sat at the breakfast table to draw. Mrs. Bell put me to work snapping green beans. She had a little radio in the kitchen tuned to a gospel station, and she hummed and swayed as she cooked. Tumnus twined around her ankles, purring, and she said, "Get on, now, cat."

After a while Caleb put his crayons down. He frowned at his drawing, and then looked up at me, his lips pressed together in a childlike expression of deep thought. He pushed his paper across the table to me.

I put aside the bowl of beans and picked up the drawing. In it, I could clearly see the figures meant to be Tumnus and himself and his bed and his record player, but there was another figure -- small, dark-skinned, with braids sticking out from its head like one often saw little girls wearing in the city.

As I studied it, Caleb slid down from his chair and leaned against my knee. I picked him up. "This is you," I said, pointing to the picture, "and this is Tumnus." I pointed to the girl. "Is this the ... other person?"

Mrs. Bell came over to see. "Looks like me when I was his age."

Caleb took her hand for a moment, but then looked at me in expectation. I patted his back as I tried to think of how to handle this -- it did not surprise me at all if there were yet another ghost in this house, given all the experiences I'd had so far and what I'd seen Caleb experience, to the point that I was sure more had happened than Caleb could tell us about.

But Noel didn't think Caleb knew about the ghosts. Mrs. Bell wouldn't want me to ask about it, either.

"Maybe he saw a picture of you when you were a girl," I said to her.

"That's unlikely," Mrs. Bell said. "There aren't many pictures of me before I came to Fidele." She went back to the stove. "But there are plenty of other girls he might have seen and wanted to draw."

"That's true," I murmured, and pulled over the crayons and paper so Caleb could draw some more without leaving my lap. "That's a good drawing, Caleb. Why don't you draw us another, to show Uncle Noel?"

Caleb looked at me, and then picked up a blue crayon and started drawing.

I said abruptly, "Where's Noel?"

"I thought he went out with you," Mrs. Bell said.

"He came back with me, too. Did he go out again?"

"He must have," Mrs. Bells said. "Are you finished with those beans, Mr. Malcolm?"

"They're done," I said, and handed her the bowl. That had to be why Noel hadn't come to check on Caleb when the music got so loud -- he wasn't here to hear it.

That troubled me almost as much as the record player.

"Caleb, let's set the table," I said, and Caleb put down his crayon and slid from my knee.

The table was set and supper was almost ready when the front doors opened and in came Noel, wearing his overcoat and carrying an umbrella. Caleb ran to him as he was shaking out the umbrella on the porch, and Noel scooped him up with one arm. "Hey, peanut," he said and smiled when Caleb kissed his cheek. "Did you miss me?"

Caleb nodded and put his arms around Noel's neck. Noel hugged him and looked at me, eyebrows raised in question.

"A strange thing happened," I said. "I'll tell you later. Where did you go?"

"I went for a walk," Noel said. "I needed to be outside." He put the umbrella in the umbrella stand by the door and said to Caleb. "I need to put you down for a minute so I can take my coat off."

Caleb nodded reluctantly and let Noel set him on his feet, but clung to Noel's leg as soon Noel took off the coat. "Must have been a bad thing," Noel murmured. He said to me, "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," I said. "Are you?"

Noel hung his coat on the coat rack. "I'm a little tangled," he said and picked up Caleb again. "We can talk later. It's time to eat." He bore Caleb into the dining room.

The rest of the evening was as usual. Emmanuel's eyes darted between Noel and me a few times, but he didn't say if he noticed something was different between us. After supper, Caleb listened to his half hour of radio, and then Mrs. Bell took him to give him a bath. Emmanuel shut himself up in his study, and I said to Noel before he could disappear into the library, "I need to show you something," and we went into the kitchen, where Caleb's drawing paper and crayons were still on the breakfast table.

I gave Noel the drawing Caleb had made, of himself, Tumnus, and the little girl. Noel inhaled sharply at the sight of it, then put his face in its usual neutral expression and said, "What does this mean?"

"I don't know. His record player was playing strangely until I unplugged it -- too loud, too slow and then too fast -- and it frightened him. Really frightened him."

"I'll have a look at it," Noel said and put the paper down. "It must be broken."

"Noel --"

"Dr. Dufresne says children often have imaginary friends,"  Noel said. "That's all this is."

"No imaginary friend could do this," I said. Noel's only response to that was for his jaw to clench a little bit, and I said, "You know what caused this."

"An imaginary friend," Noel said firmly. "Maybe he needs to spend more time with other children. I'll ask Alex if his offer for Caleb to play with his son still stands. It's probably best to start small, don't you think?"

"I suppose so." He nodded. His hand rested on the back of a chair, and I put my hand on top of it. "Where did you go?"

"I went for a walk."

"In the rain?"

His fingers tensed, and then tapped the wood a few times. "I wanted to go to the graveyard but it was raining too hard."

"Noel," I began.

His eyes met mine defiantly. "Sometimes I need to talk to my brother."

"You can talk to me."

"I can't talk to you about you."

Well, he had me there. "I hope you don't regret it."

"I don't know what I feel right now." He looked exhausted -- defeated, even -- and I ached for him even more, longing to give him all the comfort my body could provide.

"Come to me tonight," I said, moving close enough to him that I could see the shadows his eyelashes cast on his cheeks. "Let me take care of you."

"If anyone saw me in your bed -- if Emmanuel caught us --"

"I'm not afraid of him," I said.

Noel sighed, pulled his hand gently from under mine, and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. "If it were just me, I wouldn't care what he knows or thinks he knows," he said. "But it's not just me. What I'm afraid of is what he would do to Caleb given half the chance. God, Malcolm, this is hard on me, too."

I took his face in both hands, and chased his gaze when he tried to look away. "Let me help you," I said. "Let me comfort you. I can be discreet."

"We agreed to keep our hands off each other."

"And then today happened." I smiled, but he didn't.

"I want to check on Caleb. Let me go, please."

I sighed and dropped my hands, and took up my cane. "At least you're honest about why you won't sleep with me. Thank you for that."

"If I could," Noel said quietly, "I would do things to you that would make you blush to think about them later. But it's not going to happen." He left the kitchen.

"Promises, promises," I said to the empty room, and went to my own room, yearning for Noel even more. I had hoped that having him once would be enough, but it only sharpened my hunger for him rather than sated it.

Well, I had agreed to this. I had to honor the agreement, no matter how difficult.

Restless, I took up my sketchbook and drew a quick scene between Sir Errant and Sir Tristan, in which they exchanged heated kisses in a hayloft. But then in the next panel, Sir Tristan said, "What about the prince?" and I put down my pencil as his words resonated with me.

The prince, of course, was my comic's version of Oliver, held captive in a tower until Sir Errant rescued him. Now that they were apart, and likely parted for good, Sir Errant was starting to entertain thoughts of a future with Tristan, but of course Tristan would want to know what sort of rival he had for Errant's heart.

I didn't have an answer, not for Tristan, not for Noel.

I left Errant's reply speech bubble blank and shut the sketchbook.

The rain continued, and with it, my wakefulness. I knew that Caleb had Mrs. Bell nearby and Noel would look in on him, and of course, Tumnus slept beside Caleb every night -- still, I got out of bed and put on my dressing gown, and went to the nursery to make sure all was well.

What I found was that his little bedside lamp was on, and he, Tumnus, and Noel were curled together, sound asleep in his bed. The book Noel had been reading to him was still open in Noel's hand. For a moment I watched them sleep, and then I gently took the book from Noel and put it aside. I spread the spare blanket over them and turned off the light, petted Tumnus, and went back to bed.

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