Chapter Fifteen - Samuel
Caleb refused to sleep alone the next night, and the night after that; all week, in fact, he would not go into his room at bedtime unless someone else was with him. Mrs. Bell bathed him and got him into his pajamas, and after that Noel took over to hear his prayers, read him a story, and sit with him until he fell asleep. When I got up in the night myself, as I often did, I found Noel either asleep in Caleb's bed with Caleb in his arms, or on the floor beside his bed on a makeshift bedroll.
I offered to sit with Caleb at night, but Noel shook his head. "You look after him all day. I don't mind looking after him at night." Still, even after a few days I could see the weariness that settled on him; neither of us slept much, but now even the few hours he was able to snatch were not restful, and he moved slowly, no doubt stiff from sleeping on the floor.
Thursday night, after Mrs. Bell took Caleb and Emmanuel was in his study, I said to Noel, "Let's go for a walk," and with a small, mostly-in-the-eyes smile, he said, "Let's."
We left the house for the gardens. The moon was out, casting the gardens in a silvery light. We walked near each other, bumping a few times and murmuring, "Sorry," until Noel offered his arm. "This is not a statement on your ability to walk."
I huffed -- I hated it when people treated me as if I were fragile -- but took his arm anyway. "Aren't you worried about Emmanuel seeing?"
"No," Noel said. "Even he can't object to chivalry."
"Maybe I should have suggested a drive instead."
"Maybe." Noel cut a look at me, and I smiled to myself. "I want to take Caleb to the pictures tomorrow night. Would you like to come?"
Rene and Angelique had invited me to join them in the city, as they did every Friday night, but this was a much more appealing offer. "I'd love to."
"We probably ought not stop on the way," he said mildly, and I smiled to myself again. "Saturday morning he's playing with Alex Christie's son for a few hours, so I don't want to keep him up late."
"About that," I said. "You can't keep going on so little sleep, Noel."
"I slept less than this during the war."
"The war's over."
"How many hours do you sleep a night?" he shot back, and I stopped walking. "Sorry, he said and rubbed his hand over his face. "That was uncalled-for. I guess I am more tired than usual."
"But I don't want him having nightmares, not when he can't call for help."
"I'm not saying you should just leave him be," I replied. "But we need to find a happy medium. What does Dr. Desfrense say?"
"The same thing she always does. Be patient, and he'll move past it. I don't know what to do in the meantime. He's got a nightlight. He's got a teddy bear and the cat to keep him company. You're just down the passage and Mrs Bell is in the next room. But if I sleep in my own own bed he crawls in with me, and when I put him back into his bed he won't let go of me until I lie down with him. I don't know what else to do than to just stay with him so he doesn't get up in the night and go out of the house again, or worse."
Talk to him about the ghosts, I thought, but pressed my lips together to keep from saying it out loud.
We were near a wrought-iron bench that encircled an oak tree, and Noel looked at me with his eyebrows raised. I shook my head -- I had no need to sit -- so we continued to walk, deeper into the garden where sugar cane stalks pressed close against the wrought-iron fence and fireflies darted among the cypress trees and weeping willows. The lights from the house glowed in the distance.
I said, "I used to sleepwalk when I was a kid. I would wake up in my sister's room or curled up in the bathtub, or sometimes it woke my brother up and he'd put me back to bed. One time I was in the front yard when they found me. That scared my mother more than it did me."
"How did you make it stop?"
I shrugged. "I got older and it stopped by itself. But my point is that weird sleeping habits happen with kids all the time. You just have to find a way to deal with this that isn't also going to wear you out -- like maybe moving his bed into your room."
"Oh, Emmanuel would have a heart attack at that. What did you do at Goodwin if a child wouldn't sleep in his bed?"
"We had housemothers who dealt with that. If it got so bad it interfered with the boy's schooling she'd bring the matter to the superintendent, and sometimes that meant the boy was sent home, with a recommendation he attend a day school."
"I wish I could send him somewhere," Noel murmured. "Anywhere would be better than this." He sighed. "I'll just have to continue being patient and waiting for him to grow out of it."
"Don't be afraid to ask me for help," I said seriously.
"You being here is help enough." He said this softly, looking away, and I couldn't stop myself from smiling.
We hadn't had a chance to touch all week; we'd hardly had a moment alone with each other, let alone to escape the house for an hour. I ached to touch him even more now that we'd taken that step; I knew I shouldn't, that I remember he was my employer and not my lover, that I should leave him alone -- but I just didn't want to.
All around us, the night was quiet. Wind made the trees and sugar cane rustle; the river rumbled in the distance, cicadas chirped, bullfrogs thrummed.
Still, before the need to touch him could make me move, Noel turned back to the house. "It'll be Caleb's bedtime soon."
"All right," I said, shoving the need back down, and he offered me his arm again for the walk back.
Friday night, the three of us drove into the city and chose a movie theater near the university. The theater was busy with students, young marrieds out on date night, and families trying to keep all the children together. Noel carried Caleb with one arm as we walked from where we had parked the car, and we stopped in front of the posters to choose the night's entertainment.
"The Red Badge of Courage," Noel read with doubt in his voice, "The Thing, or An American in Paris."
"War picture, horror picture, or musical," I said. We looked at each other and we both said, "Musical," and Noel smiled a tiny bit.
"What do you think, Caleb? Musical? It has a lot of singing and dancing."
Caleb studied the posters, his mouth screwed up in thought, and then nodded and pointed to the poster for An American in Paris with its bright colors and Gene Kelly's smiling, handsome face.
"A man after my own heart," Noel said, and we got in line for tickets.
Once those were purchased we stood in another line to buy popcorn and soda pop, Noel still carrying Caleb. I stood a little bit behind them, in part because the line for treats was cordoned off by a velvet rope and the section was narrow, but more because it gave me the perfect opportunity to admire him. I knew Noel's work involved a lot of sitting at his desk while he researched and analyzed, but there were also days when he left the house in work boots and jeans because he was going to be on a building site or a possible location. He kept his body strong because of those days, and the sight of Caleb so trusting in his arms, his own arm around Noel's neck as Noel carried him easily, was truly touching.
They were both striking enough to get second looks from many people, something I suppose Noel was accustomed to enough to barely notice, though I did catch him faintly frowning when a pair of girls pointed to Caleb -- a pretty child by any standard, with his wide blue eyes and curly dark hair -- and then whispered to each other behind their hands. I stepped a little closer to Noel then, and put my hand on his back a moment. He glanced at me and gave me one of his faint smiles.
Finally it was our turn to order and pay. The girl behind the counter caught sight of Caleb and exclaimed, "Oh, what a beautiful son you're got, sir!"
Noel smiled uncomfortably, and Caleb hid his face in Noel's shoulder. "He's my nephew."
"Oh--" She glanced at me, and I picked up the bag of popcorn.
"He means thank you," I said, and Noel murmured, "Yes, thank you," and took our bottles of soda. "Caleb, I think I need to put you down now."
Caleb nodded and slid down to the floor, and Noel gave him one of the bottles. They held hands as we went through the lobby to the theater itself.
We chose seats near the front so Caleb could see the screen easily, and had him sit between the two of us. "You're in charge of the popcorn, Caleb," Noel said as he handed me my bottle of Coke, and Caleb nodded solemnly and held the big bag in his lap with both hands.
Before a picture begins, theaters are always bustling places, as people find their seats and call out to friends or leave again to get food, and we had to shift a few times to let our fellow audience members in and out of the row. A bit of commotion was commonplace, until someone's raised voice rose above all the other noise -- "You don't belong here!"
I started to haul myself up when Noel got to his feet. A man in the row in front of us was berating the couple a few seats down -- a Negro couple, young folks out on a date, and they both had the lowered heads and resigned expressions of people who just wanted a bit of normal life and were once again denied it.
"Hey!" Noel said sharply, and all four -- the Negro couple, the shouting man, and his own date -- looked at us. For a moment I thought for a moment the man recognized Noel -- or maybe he just recognized the kingly air Noel carried with him -- but then he took in me, too, and shrank into himself.
"Some folks ought to know their place, is all," he mumbled to the floor.
Noel said to the couple, "There are seats in our row for you," and glared at the other man as if daring him to protest. The Negro couple moved back to our row, and the woman smiled at Caleb as they shuffled past him, getting a smile in return. I sat down once they were down a few seats, though Noel stayed standing until they were safely seated, and then sat too and exhaled. Before I could reach other to pat his shoulder, Caleb leaned his head on Noel's arm, and Noel dropped a quick kiss on Caleb's hair.
The picture was cheery and full of Gershwin tunes, though the plot hit home a bit -- Gene Kelly played an American G.I. working in Paris as a painter, like I had hoped to do before I was wounded. The picture didn't mention theproblems most vets I knew dealt with, either -- the sleepless nights, the flinching at loud noises, the war wounds that never really stopped aching. Ah well, it was a fantasy. Most people don't break into song at the most emotional moments of their lives, either.
Caleb loved the entire movie-going experience; he sat on the very edge of his seat, eyes wide, all during the cartoon and the newsreel, and through most of the picture itself. Still, he was asleep by the final ballet, and slept soundly, his head on Noel's shoulder as Noel carried him out of the theater and back to the Jaguar.
Noel put Caleb carefully in the center of the seat and we got in either side, and we both were quiet as we drove out of the city and back to Fidele.
"It was good to see that Paris is recovering well," I said at last. "I didn't get much of a chance to linger when we were there. We drove out the Germans and then followed them right out of France, and my involvement in the war ended not much later."
Noel didn't answer for a minute or two. "I'd like to see France someday. Supposedly there's a chateau somewhere in the countryside, with distant cousins. Achille Thibodeaux was supposed to be the youngest son of a minor noble, or so the story goes."
"If they survived the Revolution, they might still be there."
We drove several minutes more in silence, then I said, "That was a brave thing you did in there."
"That theater doesn't have a colored section. Those two had every right to sit where they wanted."
"That fella should have known that."
"That fella wouldn't have cared. Men like him don't. Fought a goddamned war to end that bullshit and it's still going on at home."
"Noel," I said and put my hand on his shoulder, and he exhaled slowly.
"Sorry. It drives me crazy."
"I know. It does me, too."
"Well, you were raised a progressive. You've got more experience with it."
I smiled out the window. "It gets easier. No, that's not exactly right. It doesn't get easier to watch. But it gets easier to stand up."
Noel huffed, and we drove in silence for a while.
I said, "All in all, that was a nice date night, complete with chaperone. Clever of you."
"A boy, his uncle, and his tutor," Noel said. "Perfectly innocent."
"I'm sure no one suspected a thing."
"We all needed to get out of the house," Noel said and glanced at me. To keep myself from taking his hand, I put my other hand out the window to feel the night air skimming over my skin.
As we came up the drive, Fidele waiting at the end, I said, "We could still make a break for it tonight."
"I didn't bring a change of clothes for Caleb," Noel replied.
After breakfast on Saturday, I walked with Caleb to the Christies' little house, which had been the overseer's house during the glory days of the plantation. It a one-story little house, painted yellow and turquoise, with awrap-around porch and many windows to invite in any stray breezes from the river.
"Ready for this, Caleb?" I said, and he looked up at me and give a hesitant nod. "If you want to go home at any time, just let me know and we'll go."
He nodded, and we climbed the front steps and rapped on the door.
Julia Christie was a pretty but weary-looking young woman with an English accent and bobbed dark hair. Her little boy, Samuel, clutched at her skirt and peeped at us shyly while she struggled with a wailing toddler. Samuel was a stout, dark-haired child, in shorts and sandals and a short-sleeved knit shirt. The house itself was cluttered but tidy, with an upright piano in the front room and the photo from Alex and Julia's wartime wedding on the mantlepiece.
"Mrs. Christie, I'm Malcolm Carmichael and this is Caleb," I said.
"Oh, Mr. Carmichael," Mrs. Christie said as the baby squirmed and cried, "my sister-in-law dropped off my nephew for the day without asking me if I could watch him. Maybe Caleb should come another day."
"I'm all right with that," I said and looked down at Caleb, who was still holding my hand. He looked up at me, disappointed. "What do you think of that, Caleb?"
He shrugged, looking at Samuel. Samuel smiled back, a little less shy, and let go of his mother's skirt.
"I want to play with him, Mummy," he told his mother, his tone hopeful.
She smiled and touched his hair, and I said, "I could watch the boys, if you're busy with the baby."
"That would be so helpful," she said, nearly sagging with relief. "I'd like them to play in the back garden, and there's a rocking chair -- not that you need a rocking chair," she added hastily, "I mean, obviously you shouldn't stand all afternoon, but, um--"
"I appreciate the chair," I said. I balanced on my cane and stooped down so I could be on Samuel's level. "Samuel? I'm Malcolm. I look after Caleb. Would you like to show Caleb your back yard?"
Samuel nodded and grabbed Caleb's hand, and they ran through the house and out the back door. I straightened up and said to Mrs. Christie, "What's your nephew's name?" as I gestured to the baby.
"Ned," she said, and then gestured to the baby too. "This is actually my daughter, Jane. Ned is outside. He's a little older than Sammy," she added as we walked through the house. "They don't see each other very often because Alex and his brother don't get along, and I've been trying to houseclean and keep them occupied, and their noise keeps waking up the baby."
"I don't mind watching the children," I assured her.
"Thank you, Mr. Carmichael," she said and pulled the rocking chair out of its corner so it overlooked the yard better.
"Thank you," I answered and sat, my cane propped against the porch's banister. I took out my sketchbook and pencils and held them on my knee as I looked out over the yard. Trees grew right up to the fence, and I could hear the waters of the bayou, even closer than they sounded in the gardens. The grass was thick though not as neatly trimmed as it was at the big house, but there was no pair of gardeners to take care of it; still, the autumn flowers were a riot of colors in the flower beds, and there was a simple tree house in one of the oaks inside the fence.
The cousin, Ned, was in the tree house. He was also a stocky, dark-haired child, aged nine or ten, and taller than Samuel and Caleb. He strutted up and down the platform of the tree house like it was a pirate ship and he was its captain.
"That's my cousin," Samuel told Caleb. "He says the tree house is his now."
Caleb looked up at the tree house, and then at Samuel, and then tugged his hand. They went to a sand pit at the other end of the yard, where Samuel had been building a small lumpy city for his toy cars.
The little boys seemed to be getting along fine and Ned was busy crowing over the tree house, so I opened my sketchbook and began to brainstorm the continuing adventures of Sir Errant and Sir Tristan. They couldn't just kiss all the time, as much as I enjoyed drawing it.
For the first half hour or so, things were peaceful. I heard Mrs. Christie softly singing as she went about her chores, and Samuel chattered away happily as he and Caleb built up the sand-pit town. Not a peep from Caleb, but I knew better than to expect a breakthrough to happen on such an ordinary afternoon.
Eventually Ned, bored without an audience, climbed down the tree and circled the yard slowly a few times before stopping at the sand pit.
"What're you doing?"
Samuel's response was quiet. "Makin' stuff. A city."
"Then I'm King Kong!" Ned announced, waving his arms, and he stepped on one of the buildings Samuel and Caleb had made. Caleb looked up at him, his eyebrows drawing together. "Rar!" Ned kicked over another building, and then ground a car into the sand with his foot.
As I grabbed my cane and started to get to my feet, Caleb stood, lower lip protruding, brows furrowed -- so much like the face Noel made when he was displeased that I had a moment of imagining Simon and Noel as five-year-olds, frowning in unison at Emmanuel -- and then climbed down the steps. Caleb, meantime, was breathing faster and faster as Ned gleefully stepped on Samuel's cars. Samuel stayed on his knees, his eyes downcast.
"And who are you, anyway?" Ned said to Caleb as I crossed the yard. "You're not Samuel's friend. Samuel doesn't have any friends."
Caleb glared at him.
"Why don't you talk?" Ned said, shoving his face into Caleb's. "Are you a dummy? Dummy! Dummy! Dummy! Samuel's friends with a dummy!"
Faster than I could move, Caleb lowered his head and ran into Ned, knocking the bigger boy in the solar plexus. Ned went down onto the grass and stared up at Caleb, shock all over his face.
I finally reached them and grabbed Caleb. "Caleb Thibodeaux, what the hell--"
He threw himself into my arms, shaking, and I knelt as best I could. Ned watched Caleb cautiously as if he'd never had anyone stand up to him that way. Samuel stared, too, his eyes enormous, and I wanted to hold out an arm for him as well.
"Ned," I said, and for a moment he looked frightened, as if he hadn't thought any adults were around, and then he saw my cane and his face relaxed. I ignored it. "Apologize to Samuel. You have no right to destroy his toys."
Ned got to his feet. His face had the mulish look that boys who think they're tough get when they're about to be insolent. "You're not my dad. You're just a cripple."
"You're right," I said. "I am crippled. Wanna know how I got crippled?" Without waiting for him to respond, I said, "Fighting Germans in the war. If you think you're scarier than German soldiers, you've got another think coming, kid."
Ned blinked, as if no one had ever spoken to him this way before, and I could picture his parents so clearly -- his inconsiderate mother, his bullying father -- and I felt sorry for him, just for a moment. He looked at Samuel and muttered, "Sorry."
Samuel nodded and looked at me -- or at Caleb, whose face was still buried in my shoulder.
"Caleb," I said to him gently, "I know you were trying to defend your friend, but it's wrong to hurt people. Are you sorry for what you did to Ned?"
Caleb met my eyes, and then shook his head vigorously. I pressed my lips together to keep from smiling -- I didn't blame him for not being sorry -- and said, "Then I think it's time we go home. Playtime's over. I'm sorry, Samuel," I added to him.
"It's okay," he said quietly, and I sincerely hoped that our leaving didn't mean a miserable afternoon for him.
Mrs. Christie came out onto the porch as we were coming up the steps, Ned trailing behind us. "What's happened?"
"The boys got into a little altercation," I said, and Mrs. Christie put her hands on Samuel's face, looking anxious. "Maybe we could try this some other day."
"Yes, of course," she said, still looking over Samuel, and I didn't wait for her to see us out.
On the walk back through the woods to Fidele, I said to Caleb, "You had half the right idea, Caleb. It's good to stand up to people who are being mean or cruel. It's not good to be mean or cruel back. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
He looked up at me with wide eyes, and nodded solemnly. I stooped and murmured, "And between you and me, I think that kid deserved it," and he hid his face in my leg, smiling and bashful and pleased.
That night, as everyone else was doing their usual evening activities, I left the house to walk the gardens. I did this most nights, unless it was raining; and sometimes even then I broke out a rain slicker and nor'easter and stumped around the brick paths.
I had a joint and lighter in my pocket as well, something I also indulged in most nights, as it was the only thing that let me get even a few hours of sleep. Pain was a constant since the war, and it had taken a long time to find something that eased it that didn't also turn me into a drooling mess. Weed usage was common amongst many former G.I.s I knew, who used it for the same reasons I did -- pain, exhaustion, a way to cope with the things we'd done and witnessed.
Obviously, this was not something I'd mentioned to Noel -- or Mary Kate, or Oliver, or Archie -- so I usually waited to light up until I reached one of the wrought iron benches beneath an oak tree and I was sheltered by shadows.
I'd been at Fidele for a month at this point. A lot had happened in that brief time, and it seemed to me I hadn't sat back and properly processed it yet. So I did that as best I could as I smoked and watched the fireflies; I thought about my friends and the people in my care -- I counted Noel as well as Caleb, and even Willie and Mrs. Bell and all the denizens of Fidele, and even Emmanuel in his way -- and the strangeness of this family and this haunting; I thought about the little graveyard in the woods, the sounds of the piano when no one was in the music room, the dark figure that seemed obsessed with Caleb; and I wondered what I could do for them, if there was anything I could do at all.
Before I could reach any conclusions, the sound of footsteps on the brick paving stones made me hastily wave my hand through the marijuana smoke and look for a place to dispose of the cigarette, where its glowing ember wouldn't give me away.
Noel rounded the path, and he paused. He looked at the joint, and then narrowed his eyes at me.
"It's a nice night," I said, and then gestured with the cigarette. "This is medicinal."
He looked at the joint, then back at my face, and then closed his eyes and sighed. He sat on the bench beside me and held out his hand.
Feeling like a chastened child, I gave him the joint -- but rather than crushing it out Noel took a long drag, like someone who'd smoked weed many times, and then gave it back to me.
"Beats morphine," he remarked, and I chuckled before having another drag myself. "I just got off the phone with Alex Christie. Apparently Caleb head-butted his nephew while he was at their house today."
"Yeah," I said. "I was going to tell you about that, away from Emmanuel."
"I wondered why you came home early." I offered him the joint again, and he had another drag and gave it back. "Did the kid deserve it?"
"Completely. He was a little prick."
"That seems to be Alex's opinion, too."
We were both quiet a moment, and we both were laughing. "I know it's not funny," Noel said, when we'd calmed down a bit. "But it's funny. Caleb is five. Apparently the nephew is nine?"
"I think so."
"And already a little prick."
"Well," I said," some people start young," and Noel's shoulders shook with quiet laughter.
I said, "I talked to Caleb about it. I told him standing up to a bully was good, hurting people wasn't. The kid had to be four inches taller than him, but Caleb was fearless." I hesitated. "I imagine that's what Simon was like."
Noel took another hit. "He was. He was a protector. He wasn't like me -- he was no good at being a solider. He never took the war into him. I was always glad he was on an aircraft carrier and not on the front lines. I think having to take a life would have destroyed him." He gave the joint back to me.
"He stood up for you, though." I took a drag and gave it to him.
"He did," Noel said. "But he never raised a hand to anyone, not even Emmanuel at his worst."
He took another drag. I said, "There are worse things to inherit than a sense of justice. If Caleb grows up to be a good man, you've done your job well."
"If he grows up to be a good man, I don't think it'll have much to do with me."
"Lies," I said. "You're already showing him what a good man is. You just keep doing that."
Noel huffed and gave the joint to me. I inhaled, let the smoke fill me, and then exhaled it out.
He said slowly, "Don't paint me to be a hero. I'm not like the knight in your comic. I'm not selfless and pure."
"You don't have to be a knight to be a hero." I passed the joint to him. "You just have to keep doing what you're doing."
Noel shook his head. "You have a lot of faith in me. I'm not sure why."
"Because I know you."
Noel huffed, looking at me with eyes like the night sky above us, dark yet full of light. He said softly, "You have the bluest eyes I've ever seen."
I couldn't be apart from him a moment longer. I kissed him, and he pushed his hands into my hair and kissed me back, making hungry, desperate sounds.
All too soon, he pulled back, so that our foreheads pressed together and we clutched at each others' shoulders and necks, breathing hard, aching for more. "Malcolm."
"Noel," I answered. I loved his name -- a word of joy.
"Not the time nor the place."
"Give me the time and I'll find the place."
He tightened his grip in my shirt. "You never stop, do you?"
"I've had a taste of you," I said, honest and raw. "I want more."
He looked toward the house. I glanced back at the house too -- we were yards away, shielded by the trees and hedges and the bends in the path. "Don't be afraid," I said. "No one can see us. Emmanuel can't see."
"It's not just about Emmanuel. There are other things, other reasons, why I've never been with anyone for any real length of time. It just sounds crazy when I say it out loud."
"I won't think it's crazy."
He closed his eyes as if it pained him, and I kissed his face, longing to comfort him. "Stop," he murmured after a few minutes of this, and I leaned back with a sigh. "Not tonight."
"All right," I said, then said, "Are you okay? Did something happen, that you're--"
"I'm as all right as I ever am." He put his hands on my face and I closed my eyes. It reminded me of how Mrs. Christie had touched Samuel, as much to comfort herself as to comfort him. "I'm glad you're here," he murmured and I could feel his breath on my lips. "I'm glad you love Caleb and I'm very glad you like me."
"I like you so much," I whispered.
"I know." He took his hands from my face. I opened my eyes.
"I'm going to finish this," I said, gesturing with the cigarette.
"Does that really help?"
"It dulls the pain," I said, and he nodded, looking thoughtful, and went back through the garden to Fidele.
I stayed outside a while longer, until my cigarette was burned down to ash. I crushed it on the brick path and started for the house, when movement in one of the windows caught my eye. I stopped and watched, and saw a figure in the window of one of the empty rooms. But not the strange, silent almost-Noel I had seen before, nor the dark figure I had seen in Caleb's room. This was a woman, with her hair bound in a turban high on the back of her head. Even at this distance, I could see her face and even her figure -- a beauty with wide eyes and mouth, high cheekbones and dark skin, dressed in the clothes of centuries past.
We stared at each other.
She turned away from the window, and as she turned, she disappeared.
I inhaled, startled, and then thumped to the house as fast as I could go and went up to the empty room where she can been standing. It was still empty, of course, nothing strange about it except the smell of hot, smokey smell of burning sugar.
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