Chapter Seven - Caleb

I woke myself with a gasp of "Zachary?" before I remembered the war was over and I was thousands of miles away from the forests of Germany. Shaking, I sat on the edge of the bed and shoved my hands through my hair. The nightmares about my last moments in the war had finally started to taper off, but apparently being in a new place was enough to trigger them.

As I sat there, trying to calm my breathing and shaking hands, I noticed that my breath froze into vapor as if it were January. Goosebumps rose on my arms, my heart pounded -- I was so on edge that I whipped around and demanded, "Who's there?" when I heard a creak at the door.

No answer. Of course. No one was at my door.

I flipped on the lamp at my bedside. The light it gave was dim, patterned on the walls and ceiling from the punched tin of the lampshade, but still enough for me to see that the room was empty and the door was closed. Whatever presence I thought I felt had left as quickly as they had come.

I got out of bed and tested the door. It creaked as it moved -- no one could have come into my room without making a noise. I tested the window as well -- it was closed, the sash locked, as it had been before I went to bed. The chill I had felt dissipated, and I muttered to myself about drafts and old houses as I got beneath the coverlet again.

I breathed slow and deep as I lay awake, reminding myself that there were no Germans with grenades and rifles in Louisiana. Go back to sleep, I thought, go back to sleep.

Through the stillness of the house, I heard the faint sound of a piano.

It was a ragtime melody I thought I may have heard in a bar during the war, sprightly and playful. It made me smile, and I thought it must be Noel, whiling his sleepless hours away with music.

Meaning to join him, I was pulling on my dressing gown when the music stopped as abruptly as it had begun.

I picked up my cane and left my room. There was no one in the hall. A grandfather clock ticked in a niche, telling me it was nearly three in the morning. I went to the vestibule and listened. All was quiet throughout the house -- the music had not woken Caleb or Mrs. Bell, it seemed. There was no sound from Emmanuel's wing of the house, as well.

My hands were still trembling from the nightmare. I made my way as quietly as I could -- which was, I admit, not very -- down the stairs, toward the kitchen. If there was one way my family preferred to deal with uncertainty, it was to make something -- preferably something good to eat.

I thought Noel would have gone back to bed, now that he was finished playing for the night, but as I passed the music room I saw him at the piano, softly caressing the keys. I paused, thinking he might not appreciate the interuption, but then said, "I liked the song."

He looked up, startled, and then his face went back into its usual neutral lines. "Did you?"

"I'm very fond of ragtime. Was that Scott Joplin?"

"Mm," he said in an affirming sort of way. "I'm sorry it woke you."

I crossed the music room and sat beside him on the bench. The piano was a black grand, at least a hundred years old, with the name of the instrument-maker, Kimball, painted in gold on the fall above the keyboard. The finish and ebony keys were still glossy black; the only sign of age was the yellowing ivory of the white keys.

I placed my hands lightly on the keyboard. Beside me Noel slowly sighed. "Strange beds are always uncomfortable for the first few nights."

"Bad dream?"

Now I did press the keys, not in any kind of melody. "Yes."

"I still have them, too," he said conversationally. "I don't think they'll ever really go away."

"I usually make myself some warm milk to help me get back to sleep."

"Does that really work?"

"No," I said. "But it makes me feel better." I looked at him. "I'll make you some, if you want."

His stern face turned gentle. "I'd like that." We got up from the piano and he closed the cover, giving it a soft caress before we left the music room.

In the kitchen, I got a pan and a jug of milk, poured in enough milk for two servings and put the pan over the flame on the gas stove. Noel stood watching as if he were torn between offering to help and knowing I'd refuse, and trying to look casual about it.

As I stirred the milk with a wire whisk, I said, "What's keeping you awake tonight, Noel?"

"Oh, so many things," Noel replied. "How long can we keep the farm going when we're just breaking even? How long until my farm manager gets hired away by a larger outfit and I have to find another one? How am I going to fit in the travel hours I need this week and still be home in time to eat supper with Caleb? And what am I going to do to help Caleb? Am I doing too much, like Emmanuel thinks I am? Am I not doing enough? Was hiring you the right thing to do? Should he be in a special school or is it best to keep him here?" He gave me a hollow smile. "I have plenty to keep me awake."

I poured the now frothy, hot milk into mugs and handed him one. "Seems to me you're doing everything you can. Not just for Caleb -- for everyone. Granted, I've only been here a few hours, but it seems to me you're the one holding this place together."

Noel stared down at his mug. "Thanks," he said and had a long drink that probably burned his throat.

I said, after I'd had a few sips, "I did have a dream about the war tonight, but -- you know that feeling you get when someone's been in the room while you've been asleep?"

Noel's mug paused on its way to his lips, and he said "Yes," in a cautious tone.

"It felt like that when I woke up -- like someone had just stepped out of the room."

Noel drank, his eyes not meeting mine.

"And then the door creaked," I said. "As if someone wanted to come in without waking me, or they were just leaving, but the door never moved. It was the strangest thing."

"Very strange," Noel said and had another long drink. After another moment or two he said, "This is an old house. There are lots of strange noises and feelings and echoes. Best not to let them get to you."

"Does that work?" I said in my most innocent tone, and he laughed without any humor.

"No," he said in the same tone I had used earlier. "But it makes me feel better. Thanks for the milk." He put his empty mug in the sink.

Before he could leave the kitchen I said, "I'd love to listen to you play again sometime."

"Sometime, maybe." He left the kitchen.

I drank the rest of my own, slowly, as I listened to the house creak and settle around me. When I was finished, I washed out both mugs and put them in the drainer to dry, and went back upstairs, about as quietly as I had come down.

Lights off, my cane leaning against the night stand, I lay awake and listened for noises in the hall or the door to creak again. Aside from the occasional dull roar of wind through the bayou, the room was quiet. Any visitors who crept into my room hid themselves well.

In the morning, I rose in time to see Noel and Emmanuel leave for the city. Noel drove himself in a sleek Jaguar convertible; Willie drove Emmanuel in the black Packard. There was a Ford truck in the carriage house as well, for household use.

About the same time, the two young men who tended the gardens arrived, as did two young women who helped Mrs. Bell keep house. I later learned they were all relatives of Willie's; the girls were his daughter and niece, the boys both his nephews. Keeping up Fidele was quite a family affair.

I could hear the distant rumble of machinery in the sugar cane fields, and I assumed the forestry students were tending the baby trees. The plantation may have seemed sleepy and quiet, but it was busy from dawn until dusk.

Following the scent of fresh buttermilk biscuits, I went to the kitchen. Mrs. Bell was bustling around the kitchen, and at the round table sat a little boy.

Mrs. Bell saw me and said to the boy, "Caleb, your teacher is here."

Caleb put down his spoon and turned in his chair to look at me. As I had seen in the picture Noel carried, he had the Thibodeaux vivid blue eyes and wide cheekbones, and curly chestnut hair. He was tall for his age, and neatly dressed in short pants, a plaid short-sleeved button-down shirt, and sneakers. He had been eating hot cereal from a bowl, and there was a glass of half-drunk orange juice on the table.

"Hello, Caleb," I said and crossed the kitchen to join him. As I pulled over a chair for myself, Caleb watched me warily. "You can call me Malcolm. I'm here to help you learn your letters and numbers, and we'll read a lot of books and study things like the animals in the bayou and the stars. How does that sound to you?"

Hesitantly, he nodded, and then looked at Mrs. Bell.

"Finish your breakfast, Caleb," she said. "There are children starving in China."

Caleb picked up his spoon again and began to eat.

"What would you like for breakfast, Mr. Carmichael?" Mrs. Bell asked me in a formal tone. Her approval was still forthcoming, I supposed.

"I can make it myself. I don't mind."

"Nonsense," she said. "There's grits in the pot, and the biscuits are fresh."

"I'd love some grits," I said, though I had no idea what they were, and helped myself to the biscuits and apricot jam. There was a basket of fresh fruit on the table so I peeled an orange and divided it into sections to eat with my cereal.

Mrs. Bell placed a bowl of hot cereal on the table in front of me. She gave me a mild look, and her thoughts weren't hard to discern -- what would a Yankee like me know about Southern food?

I refrained from pointing out that I was from California, not the north, and picked up my spoon to have a taste. The cereal was hot and creamy, but bland in flavor, like unsalted popcorn.

Across the table, Caleb watched me with his spoon in his hand. As Mrs. Bell turned back to the dishwasher -- scrubbing the bowls diligently before she put them in the machine, which told me she didn't trust this newfangled device to get her kitchen clean -- I leaned closer to him and whispered, "What makes this taste better, Caleb?"

He studied me a moment, and pushed the sugar bowl toward me, and then the butter dish. "Thank you," I said, and loaded my cereal with butter and sugar. He was right -- the taste was much improved.

He smiled at me shyly, and then his eyes fell on my cane. He gave it poke, and it slipped off the chair and landed on the floor with a clatter.

Mrs. Bell whirled. "Leave that alone, Caleb! Mr. Carmichael needs it to walk."

Caleb shrank away. I stooped to pick up the cane again, and told her, "It's all right. It's better to answer his questions than to let him wonder and be afraid." I hung the cane on the table between myself and Caleb. "This helps me walk. I was hurt during the war and now my right leg doesn't work very well anymore."

He looked under the table, and I stretched out my leg. "We're going to do a lot of things outside," I said. "I'll need you to be patient with me sometimes."

Caleb touched my kneecap, as lightly as a butterfly landing, and then looked up at me and nodded with a tiny, shy smile.

"Okay," I said and picked up my spoon again. "Let's finish breakfast and then we can get started."

Caleb picked up his spoon too, and we both finished our breakfast.

Breakfast eaten and our teeth cleaned, Caleb and I left the house and went into the gardens. We followed the brick paths to a wall with a stile, and over the wall was a field that had been allowed to rest for the season and where wild flowers peeped between the clumps of tall grass.

We passed the two young gardeners, who had removed their shirts despite the autumn morning chill. Their skin was rich and deep in the sunshine, and they bade us a cheerful good morning as one of the men pushed a mower across the grass and the other dug weeds from the flower beds.

I carried my supplies for the morning in a knapsack, and when we reached the field I spread out a picnic blanket which we settled on to begin lessons. Using drawing paper and crayons, I tested first his knowledge of colors and shapes, and then letters and numbers with flash cards and a First Reader.

Caleb knew all of the basic shapes -- circle, square, triangle, and rectangle -- and the colors of his crayons. He was able to count to twenty by picking out the correct numbers from the flash cards, and he recited the alphabet the same way. He knew how to spell his first name, crayon clasped tightly in his hand, though I had to help him with his surname. He could recognize basic animals, food, and vehicles, and when I gave him a little book about the planets he pored over the pages and turned back to the frontispiece to trace the map of the solar system with his fingers.

Whatever other problems Caleb was dealing with, he was a clever boy, hungry for knowledge. His choice not to speak, or his need not to speak, had nothing to do with the actual potential of his mind. I suspected we would go through all the materials I had brought before the year was done.

But since it was the first day and he had only attended preschool for a few months before the fire, once I had determined what he knew and what to focus on to my satisfaction I gave him the crayons and blank paper and asked him to draw whatever he liked, and then took out my sketchbook and began to draw with the crayons, too.

The trees at the edge of the field rustled and the river flowed, the bees buzzed and the dull roar of machinery continued, both from the lawns and the fields. It was remarkably peaceful.

When the sun was high overhead, I packed up all of our supplies and we walked back to the big house. Caleb held my hand. So far during the morning he had been obedient, even docile, but his footsteps began to drag as we came closer to the house until finally he stood stock-still, his feet planted solidly on the path.

"Aren't you hungry, Caleb?" I said, looking down at him. He looked back up at me, his hand trembling in mine, and his lower lip quivered.

I hunkered down to his level as best I could, and he looked at me with solemn eyes. "I know it's nice to be outside, but Mrs. Bell is expecting us for lunch."

He looked down at his feet and shook his head.

I said gently, "Why don't you want to go into the house, Caleb?"

He covered his face with his hands. My heart ached for him, and I wondered if his grandfather had already taken to telling him that boys don't cry.

I murmured, "Sh, sh, Caleb," and put an arm around him. He buried his face in my neck. I rubbed his back and said, "I know you miss your mama and daddy. But Grandfather Emmanuel and Uncle Noel, and Willie and Mrs. Bell and me, everybody in the house, we all want to take care of you now, the way they would. I know this is a big old house and there aren't other children to play with, but it's a pretty house, isn't it? With all kinds of places to explore? And I'll play with you, Caleb. I'm here to do that, too."

He wrapped his arms around my neck and clung to me tight. It made me wonder if the rest of the household were stingy with their hugs, and so I stayed crouched down and hugged Caleb back.

No more lessons that day. Instead we had lunch -- tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, prepared by Mrs. Bell -- on one of the side verandas, and after we ate we went to a big garden swing under the oak trees, where I read to him from one of the books from schoolroom -- The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe -- and Willie brought us lemonade in the mid-afternoon.

Some time in the second chapter, Caleb fell asleep leaning against my side. As he slept -- snoring lightly like a puppy -- I rocked the swing with one foot and watched the trees sway in the breeze as the other sounds of the plantation began to fade.

As the afternoon grew cooler, Mrs. Bell came out with a light knitted throw, which she lay over both of us.

"Thank you," I said, surprised, and she nodded shortly as she gathered the glasses and pitcher.

"I don't know what to make of you, Mr. Carmichael," she said, "but you seem to be what you say you are. That's a rare thing."

"It seems to me everyone in this house is exactly what they appear to be."

She huffed wryly. "Mr. Noel and Mr. Emmanuel are trying very hard to keep up appearances. They'll show you their true colors soon enough."

"Would you like to sit for a spell and tell me about it?"

She glanced back at the house, and then sat on the swing. "I suppose Mr. Noel told you about how his mother passed."

"He said she died after giving birth to him and his twin."

She nodded. "Mr. Emmanuel blames him for it. Miss Fabienne was alive after Mr. Simon, and dead after Mr. Noel. Mr. Emmanuel was ... not good to Mr. Noel, for a long time." She gave me a significant look, and I nodded, not needing her to spell it out.

Mrs. Bell went on, "I thought we'd never see Mr. Noel again after he left home, but he and Mr. Simon -- well, you never saw brothers so devoted. I think it would have broken Mr. Simon's heart if Mr. Noel disowned the family, and of course Mr. Noel would never do anything to hurt Mr. Simon. I think that's the only reason Mr. Noel and Mr. Emmanuel even speak now, because Mr. Simon made sure they did. For years, they were only in the same room at Christmas dinner. Mr. Noel would even only come to his mother's grave on All Saints Day when he knew his father had already been in gone."

"If they hate each other so much, why did Noel bring Caleb here to live? Isn't Noel Caleb's legal guardian?"

She waved a hand. "That's more than I know. I do know Mr. Emmanuel threatened to raise a fuss if Mr. Noel didn't bring Caleb to live at Fidele. There are things at about Mr. Noel that Mr. Emmanuel could use to ruin his reputation, if not worse."

I murmured, "He mentioned that," and looked down at Caleb as he snuggled deeper into my side.

"For all his faults, Mr. Noel loves his nephew. He would have done anything for Mr. Simon, and he'll do anything for Caleb." She ran her hand over Caleb's dark hair. "Poor little lamb." She looked at me and said fiercely, "He's not simple."

"Definitely not," I said. "He's very intelligent. I think the most important thing now is to keep his mind active until he feels like talking again."

Mrs. Bell gave a short nod, and then rose from the swing. "I need to start supper. Mr. Emmanuel gets cranky if he doesn't eat right at six-thirty, whether Mr. Noel is home or not."

"Will you send Willie? We ought to get Caleb inside and I can't carry him."

"I'll send Willie," she said, and indeed a few minutes later Willie came from the house and tenderly scooped up Caleb to carry him to the nursery.

Now that I had a better idea of Caleb's education so far, I brought out my lesson plans and textbooks and began to reorder them, to build up his knowledge in some areas and put off things that were too complex for him for a while. We would study the planets and the stars soon, for example, since they interested him so much. Many children his age liked the universe, just like some liked dinosaurs and others liked the ocean, so I had resources that were on his level.

The desk in my bedroom was too small for me to work at it properly -- it was meant for writing letters, not something that involved having several books open at once -- so I packed my materials in my knapsack and took them to the library to work.

The library was a magnificent room. It opened right onto the vestibule, and took up half of east wing of the second floor. It had two tall windows at the opposite end of the room from the doors that stretched from the floor to the ceiling, with a view of the front lawn and the avenue of cypresses. Between the two windows was a fireplace, and there were two wing chairs on either side. Down the center of the room was a long table with reading lamps every few feet. Rolling ladders enabled a reader to view the books on the top shelves.

The dominant feature of the room was an enormous Bible on a rotating stand. It was leather-bound and at least three feet in height, a French translation of the Catholic Bible that included the apocryphal books left out of the King James. There were color plates printed throughout for particularly significant events like Moses smashing the first tablets or the women finding the empty tomb. The pages were fragile, though, so I didn't leaf through them much. It was open to its most interesting feature, anyway: a ten-generation family tree in the front of the book, with the founder of the Thibodeaux family, Achille, at the top and the most recent entry, Caleb, at the bottom.

The family record was surprisingly sparse. The Thibodeaux family was not a prolific one: they had one or two children per generation, no more. Branches off the main line ended after a generation or two. Unlike mine, they were not sprawling family at all.

I traced the line with my fingertip hovering over the page. Achille and Charlotte, Maxim and Lucie, Raphael and Eugenie -- down to Emmanuel and his wife, poor doomed Fabienne. Then came Simon and Noel's birth on Christmas Day, 1918; Simon and Grace's marriage in 1945, and finally Caleb, born August 18, 1946.

Six months after the event, Simon and Grace's death date had not been written into the Bible. I didn't blame either Emmanuel or Noel for that -- writing "My brother is dead," was one the hardest things I've had to do, myself.

I left the Bible and set up my own materials on the center table. It reminded me of the study tables in the library at UC Berkeley, and I wished for a moment I had a study companion to make the long hours of reading and note-taking a little more entertaining.

I only allowed myself that longing for a moment or two, and then I focused on the lesson plans. Soon I was absorbed in making up spelling lists, drawing visual aids for addition and subtraction, and making vocabulary pages with pictures and the words in both English and French written in my neatest hand.

Abruptly the door swung open. "Malcolm," said Noel, "what are you doing, sitting in the dark?"

The sun had sunk low without my noticing, and I had neglected to turn on any lamps or light a candle. I started to gather my things. "Making better lesson plans, now that I know what Caleb has learned so far. I thought you would be working late tonight."

"Not tonight," Noel said and came to the table to help me stack the books. "I wanted to hear how you and Caleb got on."

"Quite well," I said and told him what we'd covered so far, up to lunchtime.

Then I paused, and said, "When we got back to the house, he didn't want to come inside, so we spent the rest of the afternoon in the garden until his nap time."

"He didn't want to come inside? Could you figure out why?"

We were in the school room by this time, putting the textbooks on the shelf, and I concentrated on that for a moment or two. "He couldn't tell me, of course. I suspect it was because he's lonely and unhappy. I tried to reassure him we're all going to look after him now."

Noel sighed and leaned his head against the shelf, his hand hanging from it by the fingertips. I put a tentative hand on his shoulder, wanting to comfort him, but then he straightened up and lifted his head, and I let my hand drop. "If he had any other family, he'd be better off with them," he said quietly. "But Grace's parents have passed, her only sister is a widow with four children of her own to look after, and Father refuses to accept that this old pile is no place for a child."

"You grew up here," I said.

"I was miserable until I was sent away to school, and even then I had to come home on holidays if I wanted to see my brother." He sighed. "I'm glad Caleb likes you, anyway. That's a good start. Tomorrow morning he sees his psychologist, so no lessons until after lunch. He'll come into the city with me in the morning and Willie will bring him home afterward."

"All right," I said.

We were standing close to each other at the bookcase. Even weary from the end of a long day after little sleep, Noel was a gorgeous creature, those intelligent eyes fixed on me, his jaw dark with his evening beard. His cologne -- or so I assumed, because I could think of no other way he could have this scent -- smelled of the ocean, salty and clean, and I longed to bury my face in the crook of his neck and breathe him in.

We both stepped back at the same time. "Supper will be ready soon," he said and I said, "I have some reading I want to do," and he left the schoolroom. I went to my own room and sat on the edge of the bed, and then lay on my back and allowed myself to daydream of holding that strong body, kissing those red lips, for exactly five minutes before it was time to go downstairs.

Supper was eaten in the dining room. The table was far too large for four people, but thankfully I was seated beside Caleb, and was able to cut his ham and encourage him to drink his milk.

Caleb kept his eyes downcast as he ate at first, until I decided to break the silence. "Caleb, shall we tell Grandfather what we studied today?"

Caleb looked up, uncertain yet hopeful, as Emmanuel's brows furrowed.

I said, "We talked about colors and shapes, and saw how high Caleb can count and how many letters he knows, and we talked about the planets. Then we read a book about a magical land you get to through a wardrobe."

"Caleb has always liked fairy tales," Noel said, but Emmanuel only grunted.

"I've got a book that’s a collection from the Brothers Grimm," I said. "We'll have to read it, too, when we're done with Narnia. But I think Caleb liked my book about the solar system most."

Caleb nodded eagerly.

"You did?" Noel said to him. "Is that something you want to learn more about, Caleb? The stars and the planets?"

Caleb nodded even more eagerly and Noel smiled a little.

"Well," he said, "let's see what we can do to help with that."

After that, Noel and I talked about the books we'd enjoyed as boys, with Caleb contributing with nods. Emmanuel only looked at us from under his brows, but I caught Noel smothering a smile a time or two.

After supper, Caleb was allowed to listen to the radio for half an hour, and then Mrs. Bell took him for his bath and bedtime. Emmanuel shut himself in his study as soon as his coffee cup was empty; while Noel kept us company during the radio program, as soon as Caleb was upstairs he, too, faded down a hall.

With Caleb put to bed and lesson plans finished, the rest of the evening was my own to do as I pleased. The writing desk in my room was just the right slope to use as a drafting table, and so I set up a sketchbook and my pencils, moved one of the lamps closer to the desk, and began to contemplate the continuing adventures of my Crusader knight. So far Sir Errant had been hired to slay a dragon who turned out not to be as dangerous as the townspeople thought, rescued and fallen in love with a captive prince, and teamed up with a band of misfits like the group of pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales. Their stories as he escorted them to Paris so they could worship at Notre Dame (and sell their wares at the market outside the cathedral) had given me a year's worth of material, and like the pilgrims to Canterbury I had them tell everything from animal fables to tales of war.

I had finished that adventure over the summer, and since then I had been casting about for another experience for Sir Errant. Tonight I began idly sketching a suit of armor. Perhaps I needed a Galahad to my Don Quixote, I thought, and drew a most perfect knight, stalwart and steadfast, handsome and strong.

It wasn't until I put my pencil down that I realized this paragon looked just like Noel. I picked up my eraser, thinking I would change his features -- narrow his eyes, perhaps, or give him a grimmer mouth -- and then put it down again. No one would see this, anyway; it was for my own amusement, to keep my fingers and my mind limber.

I scribbled "Companion for Sir Errant" on the page and decided I would find his name and his story later. I stretched my arms, and got my cane so I could walk a little to stretch my hip. I had taken off my shoes -- we had been barefoot children, and I never liked to wear shoes when I didn't have to -- so I sat in the armchair to put them back on.

I looked up from tying one sneaker when I saw Noel walking past my door. He had changed clothes since supper -- a slouchy, dark red, V-neck sweater and wrinkled khaki pants -- and didn't even glance in to say hello.

I supposed that wasn't unusual. He was not a warm person, we didn't know each other well, and he had such a heavy burden on his mind that it probably wouldn't occur to him to say anything in passing.

Well, it wasn't important. I finished putting on my shoes and picked up my cane, and went downstairs to walk through the garden and perhaps grab something to drink before bed.

As I went past the library, I saw that lamps were burning inside -- and to my surprise I saw Noel at the long table, lamps gathered around him as he studied topography maps and made notes on a yellow legal pad.

"Didn't you just go upstairs?" I said.

Noel looked up. He still wore the same white dress shirt he had worn all day with his jeans, the first few buttons undone, and his jacket and tie were folded neatly on the table beyond his books. His hair framed his face, the sides long enough to hang over his reading glasses.

I always thought he looked handsome, of course, but I found studious Noel to be very attractive indeed -- the little silver rims of the glasses, his hair mussed from him running his hand through it, the rakish undone buttons.

He said as I ate him up with my eyes, "I've been down here all evening. What have you been up to?"

"Remember that comic I mentioned to Emmanuel?" I said, and he nodded. "I was working on that."

"Comics," he murmured with a slight smile. "I wasn't sure if you were serious or not."

"I was completely serious." I hesitated. He probably wanted to get back to work, but I didn't want to leave him quite yet. "I was about to go for my evening constitutional. Care to join me?"

He gestured to the maps. "Too much to do."

"All right. Good night."

"Enjoy yourself," he said absently, bending his head over his maps again.

I puzzled over this during my walk. It wasn't the first time I had been so lost in my own creation that it seemed to manifest in the real world. Though why my new character looked like a suburban father on a lazy Sunday instead of a knight, I chose not to examine closely.

The moon was high enough and the evening mild enough that I ventured beyond the brick paths to poke around the edges of the garden. There was no formal delineation between the gardens and the forest; the pavers merely became sporadic, until they disappeared entirely and the path was only well-trodden earth between the trees.

I almost followed it deeper, but I had no light with me aside from my cigarette lighter, and the thought of stumbling into the swamp made me shudder. I went back to the house.

I could see lights still flickering in the library, and so once I was inside I peeped in, curious. Noel was blowing out candles, his reading glasses tucked away in his shirt pocket, and saw me in the doorway. "How was your walk?"

"Relaxing," I said. "How was your night?"

"Productive," he said. "What's your comic about?"

We climbed the stairs, Noel's pace slow as he waited for me to hitch myself along. "It's a self-indulgent thing," I said. "A story I began while I was in the VA hospital, to keep myself from going spare from boredom -- a sort of Don Quixote story where the dragons are real, but not dangerous."

"That sounds interesting," Noel said when we reached the top of the stairs. "Would you let me read it sometime?"

"Sometime," I said. I hadn't shown it to anyone, not even Mary Kate, but I suspected Noel would understand it better than anyone else of my acquaintance.

"I'd like that," Noel said and gave me one of his little smiles, the kind that are mostly in the eyes.

We were standing in the vestibule, where the different wings of the house met, when we heard a door slam open and Caleb flew out of his room. He came to an abrupt stop in front of us, slipping a little on the smooth wood, and stared up at Noel.

"Caleb?" Noel said and picked him up. "What are you doing out of bed? Did you have a bad dream?"

Caleb lowered his head, and then shook it. No.

"Would you like me to tuck you in?"

Caleb shrugged.

"Let's get you back into bed," Noel said and carried Caleb back to his room. I followed along, feeling it would be impolite somehow if I went to my own room before Caleb was safe in his own bed.

When Noel had tucked Caleb in, he said, "Would you like me to stay with you until you fall asleep?"

Caleb gave another indifferent shrug, his eyes focused elsewhere than on Noel's, as if the sight of his father's twin gave him no comfort. It seemed to me that it had the opposite effect.

I went to Noel and put my hand on his shoulder. I said to Caleb, "You heard your uncle's voice and you thought it was your daddy?"

Caleb curled tighter into himself, then nodded, one shoulder drawing up.

"You must miss your daddy a lot," I murmured.

He shrugged again, then slowly nodded, his face crumpling.

"Oh, peanut," Noel murmured, "so do I," and gathered Caleb up so that the boy could weep against his shoulder. His own face bore a deep grief that I understood all too well.

When they both had regained their composure, Noel said, wiping tears from Caleb's face, "How about I tell you some stories about the mischief your daddy and I used to get into when we were little? Would you like that?"

Caleb nodded, hugged Noel, and kissed him quickly. Noel kissed him back and lay him down.

"Tomorrow night, though, okay? It's very late. You should be asleep."

Caleb nodded, though his expression was reluctant, and let Noel tuck the covers around him. Noel stroked his hair and whispered, "I love you, Caleb," and we left, with Caleb's night light on in case he got up again in the night.

In the passage outside Caleb's room, Noel leaned against the wall and looked at me. "What a strange day this has been."

"What can I do to help?"

He looked at me with so much longing that I took a step towards him. I know I had sworn, to myself, to Noel, to Mary Kate, that I wouldn't touch him, but the words escaped me nonetheless.

"Say it."

He clenched his jaw and looked away.

I took another step towards him, closing the gap between us. "Noel. We both want it. Say it."

"I can't," he whispered even as I leaned into him, my hands pressed against the wall on either side of his head. "I want you so much I don't know how to go through another day without touching you. But, Malcolm, I can't."

"You can." I let my lips graze his. He shivered.

"I can't. I don't want to give Emmanuel any fodder for fighting me for Caleb's custody."

That should have brought me up short, I know, but I was so desperate with lust I said, "He doesn't have to know," as my lips lingered over his.

"Malcolm, stop." He put his hands on my chest. "It's more complicated than you realize."

"It seems pretty simple from where I’m standing."

He removed my hands, and then kissed the insides of my wrists. I inhaled, trembling, and he let me go and handed me my cane.

"You wouldn't believe me even if I told you, so just trust me. You and I are a bad idea from start to finish."

I started to speak, but Noel laid his fingers over my lips. "Good night, Malcolm," he said and stepped away, to go into his own room and close the door.

I watched him go, and then went to my room and sat at the writing desk, opened my sketchbook to a fresh page and wrote him a note, letting the words flow as they wished.

"Noel,

I didn't take this job to sleep with you. I took this job because I was intrigued with Caleb's story and wanted to help him. But you are beautiful and I want you. I like you. I want to be with you any way you'll let me. And any time you want to kiss me, I'll let you.

Malcolm."

I folded the paper over, wrote his name on the outside, went to Noel's room, and slipped the note under the door. I went back to my own room and got into bed, and lay awake for a long time, listening for footsteps.

No one came down the hall, not even a figment of my imagination.

>> Chapter Eight